California Adopts Sweeping New College Aid Plan
By Greg Lucas, Special to Stateline
SACRAMENTO -- In what backers say is the greatest increase in access to higher education since the GI bill, California has created an entitlement program that guarantees poor kids with good enough grades financial aid for college.
Starting next year, the state's neediest students scoring a 3.0 or 2.0 grade point average have the right to receive a grant from the state for community colleges, California State University, University of California or a private four-year college.
"This says to California students, if you do your part by studying hard, we'll do our part to help you afford college," said Democratic Gov. Gray Davis in signing the measure, which he initially opposed.
California is committing at least $1.2 billion to what's called the Cal-Grant program. In the past, the program received a fixed amount of cash for grants. When the money ran out, otherwise eligible students got no aid.
Now if a student meets the eligibility criteria, the state will give them a grant.
By making that pledge, the state estimates 30 percent of students attending California high schools could get aid.
When Davis took office in 1999, there was only enough Cal-Grant money to reach 17 percent of those students.
Other states offer financial aid to needy students but not on California's scale. Some, like Georgia, award grants based on academic performance.
Next to California, the biggest giver of financial aid based on need is New York at $637 million in the 1997-98 school year.
California's grants are available to students whose families have no more than $45,400 in assets. The income ceiling varies based on the size of a student's family.
For example, a student with five family members and income of $68,700 would qualify. As family size drops, so does the income ceiling.
Students fitting these asset and income requirements who earn a 3.0 grade point average or better would be eligible for grants which range from a maximum of $1,428 for a state university, $3,249 for a University of California campus and $9,703 for a private university like Stanford.
Students earning a 2.0 grade average would get a grant of up to $1,551 which they could use to pay textbook and other incidental costs at community colleges.
Community college per-unit fees are already waived for students at the income levels eligible for Cal-Grants.
Part-time students enrolled at least half time -- 6 credit units a semester -- would also qualify for grants.
Students have within a year of high school graduation to apply.
Expansion of the program was a rare issue on which conservative Republicans linked arms with the Legislature's most liberal Democrats.
Several Republicans say that although it was an entitlement program, because the student had to maintain a level of academic success the program was not a crutch or a giveaway.
Other lawmakers embraced it because they had grown up poor, fearing the opportunities of higher education would be denied.
Davis initially backed a $71 million increase in money for the Cal-Grant program in his budget proposal and no guarantee -- far less than what lawmakers proposed.
To win Davis' support, Senate President Pro Tem John Burton, a San Francisco Democrat and the most powerful lawmaker in the Legislature, linked the Cal-Grant bill to another bill that Davis wanted.
Davis' bill, which was included in the package, would give $1,000 merit scholarships to students who score in the top 10 percent of their school on aptitude tests or in the top 5 percent statewide.
Those scholarships are awarded without regard to financial need.
If Davis had vetoed one of the bills, the other would not have taken effect.
Burton also told Davis that because of unanimous GOP support, the governor might risk an override if he vetoed the plan.
Negotiations led to narrowing the program's scope and cost but maintaining the financial guarantee.
For more information, click on California Student Aid Commission.