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July 3, 2014
Viewpoints: California's college grants need a boost

college_career_center.JPG(July 3 - By Kristina Gonzales, Special to The Bee)

I am a first-generation college student, a single mother and sole provider for my son. I will be transferring to California State University, Sacramento, this fall, the lucky recipient of a competitive Cal Grant B as well as a federal Pell Grant.

There is no way I could have gotten this far without financial aid. And like many of my hardworking low-income peers, I could get even further if the Cal Grant B access award is increased to its original value - nearly $6,000 in today's dollars. At $1,473, the access award does not even cover the average cost of books and supplies. The Legislature has the opportunity to significantly improve college affordability through Sen. Kevin de León's Senate Bills 174 and 798.

My story starts at a community college about a decade ago. When I first came to Sierra College in spring 2004, I enrolled in one class while also working full time. I found it extremely difficult to balance my schoolwork, family life and a job, so when the semester was over I had to choose between my education and my paycheck. My son and I were barely making it as it was, and the logical choice was work. I dropped out.

This decision only got me so far. I was working at a mortgage company that went under during the financial crisis in 2007. I was broke and I was angry about it. I realized that there had never been a time in my life when I wasn't poor. I thought of my mom, also a single mother, and how she struggled to provide for my sister and me with the modest income she received from her three jobs. Then I thought of my son's future, and his potential children's future, and took it upon myself to break the cycle of poverty that kept recurring in our family.

I decided to go back to school in 2010. A friend told me about the Pell Grant. I applied and was also fortunate enough to find a job on campus, which allowed me finally to get off unemployment. Still, I was just barely getting by. I was strategic in my budgeting, putting aside the money I received from the Pell Grant and using it for rent during the semester because it was my biggest expense.

My son and I had to make sacrifices, and sometimes we would go without. There were times when I would find myself choosing between paying a utility bill or buying groceries, which is a pretty difficult choice to make when each is a necessity.

Then came another break. I was awarded the competitive Cal Grant in fall 2012 (only 1 in 16 eligible applicants receives one). It helped bridge part of the gap between my available resources and total college costs. The Cal Grant B access award helped me buy some school supplies and books, as well as food and gas to get to class. Considering that my cost of transportation alone is about $150 each month, it is obvious why I have found the Cal Grant B access award helpful in getting me through community college.

I am extremely grateful for the Cal Grant B access award, which has helped me focus more on school and ultimately transfer to a four-year university. But money is still tight, and $1,473 does not go very far over an entire academic year.

Thankfully the Legislature just agreed on a 2014-15 budget that will increase the Cal Grant B access award by $175. But it still won't be enough. That's why I'm advocating for SB 174 and SB 798, which together would supplement the Cal Grant B access award - at no cost to the state. It could increase the size of the grant to as much as $5,000 a year - almost its original value.

It's my dream to graduate on time, find a job that pays well, and put my son through college. This can be my reality if the Legislature acts.

Kristina Gonzales is studying sociology at Sierra College in Rocklin and plans to transfer to California State University, Sacramento, in the fall. She is a supporter of the Young Invincibles' Student Impact Project.