With the governor's signature this week, California college students from middle-income families will soon be in line for a tuition discount.
The state-funded Middle Class Scholarship will buffer tens of thousands of students from UC's and Cal State's frequent and unpredictable fee hikes.
That's something for UC Santa Cruz student Ryan King to look forward to. He has worked many jobs and taken on a pile of debt to pay for his education -- now $15,000 a year, not including room and board.
"There's been nothing for middle-income students to mitigate that tuition increase," King said. "The answer has always been loans -- until now."
When the program begins in 2014 it will bring some relief to California's middle-class families who have watched helplessly in recent years as public tuition and fees have nearly doubled since 2007.
It will offer sliding-scale discounts of up to 40 percent for families who earn $150,000 or less and don't qualify for Cal Grants, which support lower-income students. It was a separate bill signed Monday as part of the state budget.
Students apply just as they would for a federal loan or a Cal Grant, by completing a Free Application for Financial Aid by early March. They must also have a C average. About 130,000 public university undergraduates each year will be eligible, according to the state's estimate.
King, who will be a senior when the scholarship kicks in, estimates it will save him about $1,300 in systemwide tuition and fees, enabling him to take out one less loan. The son of a sound mixer and a substitute teacher, King works several jobs, including as a resident assistant, to keep the debt for his parents and himself as low as possible.
"My family has worked really hard to help me, but it is a big burden on them," he said.
As word of the Middle Class Scholarship spreads, others are also beginning to recalibrate how they will pay for college and even where they might go.
The timing couldn't be better for Concord residents Bill and Sandi Svoboda, a middle-income family with three teenage daughters. The new scholarship debuts as 19-year-old Jackie begins her third year at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and their second child, Jessica, is considering what college to attend.
The Clayton Valley Charter High School senior had been considering out-of-state schools but said this discount could sway her to stay in California.
"This legislation is really important for us," her mother said.
While welcome news for families who qualify for the help, observers note that the scholarship is just another patch on the state's education finance predicament.
"It just goes back to: What's the overall funding plan for California higher education? And that doesn't exist," said John Douglass, a senior research fellow at the Center for Studies in Higher Education at UC Berkeley. Even at the maximum discounted rate of 40 percent, a student pays more than in 2008-09. The scholarship covers only systemwide tuition and fees -- not room and board, living expenses, textbooks or campus fees, which average nearly $20,000 a year.
And, given the state's perennial budget gyrations, the scholarship could prove an unreliable financial aid. If the governor's May budget proposal shows a deficit, the program's funding -- $305 million when fully implemented in 2017 -- could drop by as much as one third.
Still, King and other students who fought for an earlier version of the bill when Assembly Speaker John Perez first introduced it in 2012 say they were heartened that state lawmakers did something -- anything -- to help students.
"This is giving people great hope," King said. "Maybe we can have a UC and a CSU that are truly great universities that don't turn people away because they can't afford it."
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To apply: If your family's income is too high for a Cal Grant but less than $150,000, you can apply for a state Middle Class Scholarship using the standard Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, form. You also must be a UC or Cal State student with at least a C average.
Scholarship amount: The scholarship money starts flowing in 2014, and the program will be in full effect by 2017 when systemwide tuition and fee discounts will range from 10 to 40 percent. For families with incomes of $100,000 or less, the reduction would be 40 percent. The discount decreases gradually for every $1,000 in income above that amount.