SACRAMENTO — California is promising to spend at least $1.2 billion a year to create the nation’s biggest state scholarship program, covering college tuition for all low- and middle-income students with at least a C average.
Under legislation signed Monday by Gov. Gray Davis, all California students whose grades are high enough and incomes are low enough can get a Cal-Grant scholarship, starting with the 2001-02 academic year.
“This is the most ambitious financial aid program in America and we’ll say to all students, we’re putting our money where our mouth is,” Davis said at a bill-signing ceremony in front of the Student Union at California State University, Los Angeles. “You do your job well to get the grades, college will be a reality.”
State Senate Leader John Burton, D-San Francisco, called the bill the greatest expansion of financial aid to California students since the passage of the G.I. Bill after World War II.
The expansion is made possible largely by a boom-time state surplus and a push by lawmakers and Californians to improve public education, particularly for low-income students.
Most other states are increasingly targeting their scholarship programs at students’ grades and not financial need, said Ed Elmendorf of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities in Washington, D.C.
“I don’t know of any other state that would guarantee support such as this and at the same time use it to target low-income families,” he said. “I have to give them a lot of credit for having the guts to do that.”
California actually promised college access to all students with good grades four decades ago, in its 1960 Higher Education Master Plan. But the state has never before spent enough to cover everyone eligible for a Cal-Grant, instead ranking applicants according to need and grades.
For example, five years ago only 23 percent of eligible Cal-Grant applicants received awards.
For the 2000-01 academic year, the state gave awards to 57 percent of those eligible and is spending $503 million on 130,000 students.
CSU-Los Angeles student Nani Escudero, 19, has received $1,000 from the Cal-Grant program and said she didn’t think she could go to college without financial aid.
“Right now I’m a part-time worker, full-time student. But if I didn’t get any help financially, like Cal Grant, it would be very hard to focus on school and be a full-time worker,” Escudero said. “It makes it easier to concentrate on school.”
When the Cal-Grant program is fully expanded in 2006, it will cost the state an estimated $1.2 billion a year and provide scholarships for about 250,000 students, according to the state Student Aid Commission, which runs the program.
“It’s a great stride in opening the doors to public education,” said Alex Ding, executive vice president of Associated Students of University of California, Berkeley.
“It’s this type of thing that a lot of the state has been needing to increase diversity” of students.
The expansion affects the two major types of Cal-Grant awards.
Cal Grant A awards, aimed at low- and middle-income students, require at least a 3.0 or B high school average and a maximum income of $64,100 for a family of four. It provides annual tuition of $1,428 for CSU, $3,429 for UC and up to $9,708 for private colleges.
Students who are eligible for a Cal Grant A but who attend community colleges can have their grant placed in reserve until they attend a four-year college.
The Cal Grant B award is for low-income students who have at least a 2.0 or C average and have maximum incomes of about $33,700 for a family of four.
In the first year of a Cal Grant B, the student receives $1,551 for books and living expenses to attend a community college.
In later years when he or she transfers to a four-year college, full tuition plus $1,551 is provided.
The bill also contains 22,500 scholarships for “second-chance” students returning to college as adults.
Davis also signed a bill Monday providing $118 million to provide new merit scholarships of $1,000 and $2,500 to students with high scores on the statewide test and advanced math and science exams, regardless of the income.
On the Net:
Read the bills, SB1644 by Sen. Deborah Ortiz, D-Sacramento, and SB1688 by Sen. Richard Polanco, D-Los Angeles, at http://www.sen.ca.gov
Read about Cal Grants at the Student Aid Commission: