California Education Lab Partners with California Student Aid Commission

a blue lens over three images of young people looking down
 Blog post submitted as part of the Public Impact Research Initiative.

By Paco Martorell and Scott Carrell

UC Davis’ California Education Lab (CA Ed Lab) is a research collaborative that investigates critical questions about education policy and practice in California with a focus on understanding how young adults are prepared for, transition into, and succeed in college. In this work, the CA Ed Lab partners with state-level public education segments in California, including the California Department of Education, the California Student Aid Commission, and all three segments of higher education (California Community Colleges, the California State University system and the University of California system) to answer key policy questions about educational success and equity. 

a map of california with various bubbles across the stare linking to organizations, text reads: California Education Lab, research, policy, leadership

Bolstered by a research-policy partnership with the California Student Aid Commission (CSAC), one of the CA Ed Lab’s primary focus areas is student financial aid. CSAC is responsible for administering state and federal financial aid programs for California students. The CA Ed Lab is working closely with the CSAC to understand financial aid application and take-up patterns, as well as the effects of financial aid on educational attainment.

The CA Ed Lab’s faculty directors – Associate Professor Paco Martorell (Education) and Professors Scott Carrell (Economics) and Michal Kurlaender (Education) – were recently awarded grants from the federal Institute of Education Sciences (IES) and UC Davis’s Public Impact Research Initiative (PIRI) to support this research-policy partnership and to provide rigorous research in service to state policy discussions around financial aid reform.

In the last year, we have had multiple opportunities to strengthen this partnership in service of state policy discussions and in response to the unprecedented challenges of the pandemic. Currently, state policymakers are considering proposed legislation to overhaul the Cal Grant system (which is administered by CSAC), as well as a proposal from Governor Newsom to require high school students to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) prior to high school graduation.   Both proposals aim to support the state’s low-income and first-generation college students in the aspirations to earn a college degree, by ensuring that all high school students apply for financial aid and that more eligible students at all stages of their postsecondary studies receive aid to attend and persist in college.

In order to provide timely and actionable information to inform these policy discussions, we shared research results with CSAC in bi-weekly meetings and published an infographic brief through Wheelhouse: The Center for Community College Leadership and Research.  Published results focused on financial aid application, receipt and student outcomes specific to California Community College students, the largest public higher education segment in California.  Analysis revealed that financial aid receipt has increased over time, but that substantial differences by race and community college district persist.

a chart showing high school FAFSA rates in 2018
High-school FAFSA Rates in 2018 - Financial aid applications vary widely by high school

Further analysis funded by the PIRI Grant explored FAFSA rates by high school, in light of Governor Newsom’s proposal to require students to complete FAFSA applications prior to high school graduation. Our results show that on average, 53 percent of all high school seniors who received a standard diploma in 2018 submitted a FAFSA during their senior year.  But the FAFSA submission rate varied substantially across schools. About one quarter of the state’s high schools had a FAFSA submission rate of at least 70 percent. But another quarter of schools had FAFSA rates below 40 percent, including 11 percent of schools with no graduates submitting the application. The Governor’s FAFSA proposal could help remedy this issue and help more high school graduates qualify for money to support their postsecondary education. Through our ongoing partnership with CSAC, we will continue to explore the impact of this policy should it become law.

The CA Ed Lab’s partnership with CSAC also served to facilitate much-needed research when the COVID-19 pandemic hit last spring.  CSAC and the CA Ed Lab co-designed a survey of California college students, and high school seniors, to assess how the pandemic affected students’ college enrollment plans and financial needs.  Over 76,000 students completed the survey in May 2020.1 The results showed a striking and severe impact of the pandemic on students’ lives and college plans. Both high school seniors and college students reported significant worry about finances, including their ability to pay for tuition, housing, food, transportation, technology, internet and healthcare.

a pink box with a quote: "I am concerned about being unable to pay rent or other educational expenses. This has added a lot of stress that is distracting me from my academic goals - Student Survey Respondent. Greatest concerns for the class of 2020" 82% taking online classes, 73% personal financial situation; 71% financial hardship in their family.
California high school seniors reported a dramatic increase in stress over taking online classes, their personal financial situation and financial hardship in their family.

The results from this survey provided CSAC with valuable insights into the challenges California college students are facing.  Marlene Garcia (Executive Director of CSAC) writes “The administration of this survey aligns with CSAC’s mission and desire to better serve both current and future Cal Grant recipients, specifically during this crisis. These initial findings provide important data points that can be used to estimate future demand trends of financial aid. They also help us understand and focus on issues students worry about most, especially paying for basic living expenses during this uncertain time.”2 The powerful examples of students’ challenges also provide more impetus for advocacy efforts around financial aid reform in California.  The CA Ed Lab and CSAC administered a follow-up survey in Fall 2020, netting over 100,000 responses which are currently being analyzed.

Learn more about their PIRI Grant Project 


Francisco (Paco) Martorell joined the School of Education as an assistant professor in July 2014. He has broad research interests in both higher education and K-12 policy. Recent studies include analyses of developmental education in college, the returns to educational credentials, and the impacts of school facility investments. Current projects include an examination of parental preferences for schools, financial aid in community college, the impacts of college readiness signals, and the long-run effects of school quality.

Scott Carrell is a professor of economics and the Faculty Athletics Representative at the University of California, Davis. His primary area of research is in the economics of education. Professor Carrell is a Research Associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research, a Research Fellow at Institute for the Study of Labor, and a Co-Editor for the Journal of Human Resources. He spent 10 years as an active-duty officer in the U.S. Air Force, retiring from the U.S. Air Force Reserve as a Lieutenant Colonel in 2015. 

  • 1. https://www.csac.ca.gov/sites/main/files/file-attachments/2020_covid19_student_survey.pdf?1594172054
  • 2. https://www.csac.ca.gov/sites/main/files/file-attachments/2020_covid19_student_survey.pdf?1594172054

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