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California governor Gavin Newsom

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California governor Gavin Newsom signed a suite of bills affecting higher education Friday, including Assembly Bill 943, which opens up a large pot of state funds to be used for emergency student aid.

The bill, written by Democratic assemblyman David Chiu of San Francisco and passed 40 to 0 on the Senate floor, lets community colleges use funding from the California Community Colleges Student Equity and Achievement Program for emergency student financial assistance.

There is no cap on how much money from the fund each college could decide to put toward emergency grants, but the colleges must update their student equity plans to include emergency grants as a possible intervention, according to Jen Kwart, spokeswoman for Chiu. The bill encourages colleges to take into consideration the characteristics of their own student body, including how many students could benefit from the emergency funds.

The bill was cosponsored by the California Federation of Teachers, Faculty Association of California Community Colleges, City College of San Francisco Faculty Union, Los Rios College Federation of Teachers and Scholarship America. No one voiced opposition to the bill while it moved through the State Assembly and Senate, according to legislative documents. However, the potentially burdensome fiscal impact was noted throughout the analyses.

The Student Equity and Achievement Program is already funded at $475.2 million. The money goes toward student success services like tutoring, peer-mentoring programs and equity-focused professional development for faculty.

With the new bill, funds can now be used for emergency assistance, defined as support to “assist a student to overcome unforeseen financial challenges” like housing and food assistance, textbook grants, and transportation assistance. Eligible students are defined as those experiencing an unforeseen challenge, who are making satisfactory academic progress and who are at risk of not continuing due to the financial challenge.

“With the cost of education as high as it is, many students are just one financial crisis away from being forced to drop out of school,” Chiu said in a press release. “We want to give students who experience an emergency a bit of stability so they can continue their studies.”

Colleges in California and across the nation have created their own emergency aid programs. A Senate analysis of the bill notes that Pasadena City College and Grossmont College both fund their programs through external sources like foundations and fundraising.

Amelia Parnell, vice president for research and policy at the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, said the association found in a survey that most colleges feel they aren’t fully meeting students’ emergency financial needs.

“Because emergencies are typically unexpected, it’s hard to find the right balance that’s needed,” she said, adding that she thinks the spirit of the bill is “consistent with what a lot of campuses have said.”

According to the Senate floor analyses, Chiu cites as support a February 2017 report from the Institute for College Access and Success on college costs for low-income California students. The report found that low-income students at public colleges in California can’t afford college costs with the available grants, their own resources and some working income.

It also found that community colleges sometimes have a greater net price for low-income students than four-year public schools due to the limited amount of grants available for community college students.

Chiu argued that research shows emergency aid can keep students enrolled through unforeseen challenges.

Robert Shireman, director of higher education excellence at the Century Foundation, didn't work on the bill, but he said because the state's community colleges have more financially needy students, this bill could provide some needed relief.

"By allowing some flexibility with funding already allocated for student support, campuses will have an additional tool to respond to emergency situations that might otherwise cause students to drop out or miss classes," he said.

However, the Senate grappled with questions of whether the Student Equity and Achievement Program funds would be best used for this purpose. The analysis asks if the bill would “set a precedent that dilutes student equity funds intended for critical academic support service,” and if expanding state financial aid programs would be more appropriate.

The Senate Appropriations Committee said the bill could redirect funds away from other student support services, which could lead to “potentially significant … cost pressure” to maintain the state’s current level of student support services.

The bill received great support from higher education, however, and no recorded opposition.

Laura Metune, vice chancellor of governmental relations at California Community Colleges, praised the new legislation in a written statement, saying, “AB 943 provides California community colleges the ability to address the basic needs of students using their Student Equity and Achievement funds. This flexibility in use of resources is an important step in the movement to fix financial aid for California's lowest income students and address their true college cost as proposed by SB 291.”

Other bills will affect admissions, financial aid, for-profit colleges and dual enrollment in the state, drawing praise from California Community Colleges chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley. However, several of the bills proposing tighter regulation for for-profit and private colleges were watered down or delayed before making it to the governor’s desk. A bill aimed at improving admissions integrity would require at least three administrators to approve admissions exceptions.

Mikhail Zinshteyn contributed to this article.

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