Cal Poly's Financial Aid Office. Credit: Jackie Espitia | Mustang News, 2022

While Cal Poly’s College Based Fee (CBF) increase will provide more aid to low-income students, many are criticizing the school for not supporting their current financial aid programs — which students say are now struggling.

The administration said the newly-approved fee increase is an alternative to expanding Cal Poly’s existing low-income support programs: the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), the TRIO Achievers Program and the newer Cal Poly Scholars Program.

Cal Poly’s reasoning is that EOP and TRIO are historic, state-run programs that are difficult to change, and Scholars will max out at 3,000 students by the next school year. Therefore, Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong said the revenue from the College Based Fee will support all low-income students with household incomes under $150,000, prioritizing those below $90,000.

“This is a bigger move than all three of those, frankly, in that we’re going to have financial aid for everyone in California up to $150,000 in income,” Armstrong told Mustang News.

The school intends to allocate 60% of the College Based Fee increase towards financial aid, with the remaining 40% supporting other academic opportunities.

Some students in EOP and TRIO say they already feel that Cal Poly Scholars receive a disproportionate amount of attention. While they do support how the College Based Fee will assist low-income students, they say Cal Poly must address the gaps between existing programs before starting a new one.Currently, Cal Poly Scholars students receive more than three times as much scholarship money as EOP and TRIO students receive.

Psychology senior Stanley Leung, who is an EOP Student Assistant, said he thinks the university is “pushing [EOP and TRIO] down and burying them more” than Cal Poly Scholars.

“From friends who have been in TRIO, they definitely don’t feel supported by the school,” Leung said.

EOP and TRIO both include first-generation, low-income students while students in the decade-old Cal Poly Scholars program must be from California Partner High Schools, which is a group of 520 schools that are typically poorly-funded in addition to being low-income, according to Cal Poly Spokesperson Matt Lazier.

Armstrong said the root of the university’s problem was — and still is — inadequate money for low-income students.

“We have 50-55% of students with incomes over $200,000,” Armstrong said. “They’ve had free choice to come to Cal Poly and we’re a bargain. Yet, for students under $90,000, financial aid has been the biggest barrier for them coming to Cal Poly.”

Cal Poly receives more funding than other CSUs. This was exemplified in a 2020 report that showed that Cal Poly received $2,000 more per student from the CSU system than a predominantly non-white school like CSU Los Angeles. However, Armstrong said that the funding is still inadequate for Cal Poly’s cost of attendance compared to other schools due to its desire to provide a “Learn By Doing” mission to students.

A student who is in both Scholars and EOP said they feel the university supports Cal Poly Scholars more than EOP because there has been an increase in enrollment numbers while EOP has stayed stagnant. The student asked to remain anonymous due to their employment as a student assistant by one of the financial aid programs mentioned.

“It’s kind of sad because I feel that all programs should have that growth,” the anonymous student assistant said.

Despite the programs’ differences, Cal Poly typically houses students in all three programs in the same Residential Learning Community on campus.

“They consider us all under the same category of community, but … there are some people who end up feeling bad about themselves because ‘oh, that person is in Cal Poly Scholars and I’m not. I’m only in EOP or TRIO,’” the student assistant said. “They feel that, in a way, there’s neglect towards these other programs.”

Cal Poly Scholars receive between $4,000-$5,000 per year in scholarship funding. By contrast, EOP students receive $900-$1,200 in scholarships yearly from the CSU, and only 10-15 TRIO students receive a $1,000 scholarship, according to Associate Vice President for Student Affairs Debi Hill.

Kayla Olow | Mustang News

Cal Poly’s EOP program started in 1968 and is the oldest EOP in the CSU system according to Student Affairs. TRIO, funded by a U.S. Department of Education grant, has been at Cal Poly since 1984.

EOP and Cal Poly Scholars provide similar benefits such as program-specific advising, being placed in the program’s residential learning community and access to workshops. TRIO provides students with mentorship, workshops and “cultural enrichment activities/field trips,” according to materials provided by Leung.

The Scholars program is funded by the Cal Poly Opportunity Fee (CPOF) — an out-of-state fee that will generate more than $11 million for financial aid by the 2023-24 school year. EOP and TRIO are funded by the CSU and the U.S. Department of Education, respectively, which provide much lower financial aid rates.

While Cal Poly could increase EOP and TRIO funding at their discretion, Armstrong said he started Cal Poly Scholars in 2012 because it was harder to create “drastic change” in older, statewide and national programs with low financial aid levels than it was to create a new, Cal Poly-specific program.

Armstrong said they could have expanded EOP, but it would be more difficult to do so.

“I can’t go back in time and change that,” Armstrong said.  “The bottom line is: we had a need [for financial aid] and we attacked the need in the quickest way possible, which was to start Cal Poly Scholars and move forward.”

Cal Poly Scholars, which started in 2012 with 14 students, was grown by non-resident student fees and fundraising. Armstrong said school benefactors were more likely to fund a Cal Poly program than older, state-wide and national programs like EOP and TRIO.

“It was easier to get donors to fund something new,” Armstrong said. “The plan is sustainable because we have so many students from parents with over $200,000 in income today. And I value all students. I just want everybody to have the same choice.”

Cal Poly’s EOP is only one of two CSU campuses without a director, coordinator or senior adviser since the end of the 2018-19 school year when the last director departed for CSU Long Beach.

“Just due to the economic situation that we’re in, we have many, many positions open in student affairs, academic affairs and across the university,” Armstrong said when asked about the vacancy.

Leung challenged this argument, and said that the university promotes EOP and TRIO but neglects to actually manage them well. 

“It’s really annoying having them saying they’re doing great by showcasing our programs, but they’re not putting any effort into growing our programs,” Leung said. “Why don’t you work on expanding and growing the communities and programs that we already have on campus?”

Armstrong recently said that with revenue from the CBF increase, Cal Poly plans to create a program that would award financial aid to a drastically higher number of low-income students than Scholars, EOP and TRIO currently support. This new program would potentially provide additional aid as soon as Fall Quarter 2022.

Leung supports the CBF increase but didn’t like how Armstrong used EOP and TRIO as a model for implementing it. 

“[Armstrong] said ‘we learned it by doing it,’ but he didn’t do anything for these programs,” Leung said. “He can’t get rid of EOP because it’s in the constitution — you have to have one of these programs on your campus — but he can definitely bury it under [Scholars] and he can make sure that we don’t get any additional funding.”

While Armstrong has refrained from directly changing EOP and TRIO programs, he said it’s no longer necessary to expand them. Instead, in the future, incoming EOP and TRIO students would be able to dual-enroll in Cal Poly Scholars and receive financial aid from both programs. 

“It’s an end to the ‘either or’ question,” Armstrong said.

Armstrong acknowledged concerns about how the Scholars program excludes some students, but he said the CBF increase would eliminate the partner high school restrictions, allowing any low-income Californian to receive aid. He also said that Cal Poly will bend that rule in the future to ensure that EOP and TRIO students can dual-enroll.

Currently, only about half of EOP students, 344 specifically, are dual-enrolled, according to Hill.

However, Executive Director of Financial Aid Gerrie Hatten is optimistic about an upward trend. 

“Of the 174 first-time freshman students in the EOP program this year, 144, or 83%, are CP Scholars,” Hatten wrote in an email to Mustang News. “So, we are definitely moving in that direction, as we anticipated would happen.”

By 2023, the school aims to support 3,000 Cal Poly Scholars, and Hatten estimated with the increase in Scholars, dual-enrollment will increase as well.

“The potential exists at the freshman level for all EOP students to be Cal Poly Scholars,” Hatten wrote.

However, no timeline was provided for 100% dual-enrollment.

“While the university’s goal remains to dual-enroll as many students as possible, because each program [TRIO, EOP and Scholars] must award based on their own criteria, we may have some students only in one program and not the other,” Hatten said.

While EOP provides their selection criteria and eligibility by income level on their website, EOP student assistant and electrical engineering senior Carlos Gonzalez said that the Cal Poly Scholars selection criteria still isn’t transparent, as their standards cannot be found on the Scholars website and they don’t define “low-income” students.

“People just get chosen,” the anonymous student assistant added. “Because of the way they also describe the program, it’s for ‘high-achieving students,’ but then it’s like what constitutes a high-achieving student if there are no actual criteria and it’s all based on financial aid?”

The new financial aid program provided by the CBF most likely won’t be fully implemented for years, as the final fee increase won’t take effect until the 2026-27 school year.

The anonymous student assistant said they think without student input, increases to any of the programs would be much slower.

“Historically speaking, it’s usually always students who have to speak up within these programs to implement changes,” they said.

The student assistant said they are optimistic about the future overlap between EOP or TRIO and Scholars like in their situation. 

“That would help students tremendously in terms of financial aid and overall networking opportunities within those two programs,” the source said.