Four members of the California state legislature met Friday with about a dozen Saint Mary’s students to discuss the threat of cuts to the Cal Grant program, which could cost SMC students about $3 million in aid.
“Cal Grants are a big deal for me and for my family. Without Cal Grants, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to grow as a leader and also academically,” said Charise Johnson, one of the students the lunchtime meeting, which brought together the legislators with SMC student government leaders and a number of Cal Grant recipients.
Democratic Assemblymember Susan Bonilla of Concord, a former teacher who chairs the Budget Subcommittee on Education Finance, said she supports the drive to preserve full funding in the state budget for Cal Grants to students at private colleges like Saint Mary’s.
“I went to college on Cal Grants, so I know how important they are,” she said. Bonilla’s subcommittee recently voted 4-0 to reject $302 million in proposed cuts to the Cal Grant program, sending a message to Governor Jerry Brown, the full Assembly and the Senate that the cuts could not be pushed through without resistance.
About 650 SMC students receive Cal Grants of up to $9,708 a year, based on need, to help pay for their education. If cuts proposed in the current state budget are implemented, the grant would be reduced to about $5,472, and Saint Mary’s would lose about $3 million in student aid.
Besides Bonilla, other legislators at the meeting were Senator Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, and Democratic Assemblymembers Joan Buchanan of Alamo and Nancy Skinner of Berkeley. Lisa Douglass, vice president for external affairs of the Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities (AICCU), also attended the meeting, which was organized by SMC Presdient Brother Ronald Gallagher and Tim Farley, SMC’s director of community and government relations.
Buchanan, who said she got through college with the help of Cal Grants and a full-time job, said it makes no sense to cut funds for education in a recession, because it’s “the main economic driver” that will help the state recover.
DeSaulnier said “it’s imperative that we protect Cal Grants, particularly for private schools that provide good education,” and Skinner suggested that legislators, who are facing tough choices about cutting education vs. social services, may try to preserve funds for those private schools that can demonstrate success, such as high graduation rates.
Representatives of student government, including President Damaris Nielsen and Vice Presidents Will Hawley and Marshal Caro, also spoke out about the importance of Cal Grants.
Nielsen said the grants have allowed her to take on leadership positions that didn’t pay well. She added: “My 14-year-old brother wants to come to Saint Mary’s. I hope he’ll have the same opportunity as me.”
Karen Pedraza, another Cal Grant recipient, said she hopes to graduate and go on to law school so she can help her parents, who are farm workers. “I want to make sure that they don’t have to keep doing that for the rest of their lives,” she said. For Pedraza, the future of the Cal Grant program will affect not only her but her whole family. “My little sister wants to go to college,” she said, “and I worry she won’t be able to.”
Office of College Communications
Photos by Teresa Castle