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Middle-class scholarships to UC, CSU likely

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From page A1 | June 14, 2013 |

Tuition breaks
If approved as expected, the Middle-Class Scholarship Program for students at UC and CSU campuses would begin with partial funding in 2014-15.

Here is a look at three levels of tuition discounts in 2017-18, when the program would be fully implemented.

* Income up to $100,000: 40% discount

* Income of $125,000: 25% discount

* Income of $150,000: 10% discount

In the 2014-15 school year, students would receive up to 35 percent of the top discount, with increasing percentages until full implementation four years from now.

By Nanette Asimov

As tuition has soared at California’s public universities in recent years, students who have the most trouble paying that bill aren’t from poor families. They are middle-income students who don’t qualify for financial aid.

Now, a proposal to shave 10 to 40 percent off tuition for about 100,000 such students at University of California and California State University campuses is taking shape as part of the new state budget that lawmakers are expected to approve Friday.

“It would be awesome,” said Mary Youm, 18, who studies psychology at UC Davis and does not qualify for financial aid, but would under the proposed state plan. “A 40 percent tuition discount would help immensely — especially since I have a little brother, and my older brother just got out of college. My parents are paying for a lot of kids right now.”

Youm’s dilemma, or situations like it, play out for thousands of middle-income students.

A year at UC costs about $32,000, including tuition of $12,192. A year at CSU costs anywhere from $15,000 to $25,000, depending on the campus, including tuition of $5,472.

UC waives tuition for students from families earning less than $80,000. CSU’s tuition waiver cuts off at about $70,000. To help pay for that free tuition, students who don’t qualify for the aid are charged 30 percent more in tuition at both universities.

The “Middle-Class Scholarship” proposed by Assembly Speaker John Pérez, D-Los Angeles, would offer tuition discounts for students from families earning $80,000 to $150,000 a year.

Sliding scale

The program would start in the 2014-15 school year, with partial scholarships costing the state $107 million from its general fund. The state would increase spending on the program each year until it was fully implemented in 2017-18, at a cost of $305 million — assuming 75 percent of eligible students apply.

Tuition discounts would decrease as family income rises. So a family earning up to $100,000 would get the full 40 percent discount once the program was in full swing four years from now. Families earning $125,000 would get a 25 percent discount, and those earning the top level of $150,000 would get a 10 percent discount.

The Legislature is expected to take up the tuition proposal — which Gov. Jerry Brown has endorsed — as part of the $96.3 billion state spending plan.

“This effort is about keeping a promise we made 50 years ago with the California Master Plan for Higher Education,” said John Vigna, spokesman for Pérez, who has pushed for the program for two years.

The master plan envisioned a tuition-free education system in which students would pay only nominal fees. But with years of inflation and declining state revenue, university leaders long ago abandoned such low-cost dreams.

Tuition has doubled

UC’s tuition has doubled since 2005, while CSU’s is about twice what it was in 2007.

“We need to get back to a place where UC and CSU are affordable for everyone,” said Vigna, who estimates that 100,000 students would qualify for tuition help under the program.

The program is similar but less generous than last year’s effort by Pérez, which failed when state Senate Republicans blocked its funding source: a $1 billion tax loophole that helped out-of-state companies doing business in California. Then voters approved Proposition 39 in November, and the money saved by closing the loophole went to pay for alternative energy projects.

Now, though, it isn’t Republican lawmakers who are gnashing their teeth over the middle-class scholarship. It’s advocates for low-income students, like Debbie Cochrane, research director at the Institute for College Access and Success in Oakland.

“If we want to be serious — not just about college affordability, but helping students who might not otherwise go to college succeed there — then we’ve got to focus our resources on the lower end of the income spectrum,” Cochrane said.

“Less than a quarter of the lowest-income students in California get Cal Grants,” state scholarships that can pay a student’s entire tuition, Cochrane said. Many of those who would qualify don’t know about the program or delay going to college, which makes it harder for them to win a grant, she said.

Last year, state lawmakers slashed a portion of the Cal Grant program by 5 percent, reducing some annual awards to $1,473.

This year, California found itself with rising revenue because of the improving economy and the voter-approved tax initiative, Proposition 30. So advocacy groups pushed the state to restore cuts to low-income students, to no avail. The proposed state budget for 2013-14 contains no increase for Cal Grants.

Looking at grad school

At UCD, Youm has three more years of school and hopes the middle-class scholarship program will help her save for graduate school.

Although tuition didn’t increase this year and won’t go up next fall, Youm’s family has nervously tracked the upward spiral of the cost of attending UC.

In March, her parents left their Moraga home and moved to Nevada, largely to reduce expenses, but she is still a California resident. Her father is a landlord, and her mother is a stay-at-home mom. They’ve resisted taking out student loans for fear of getting deeply into debt, Youm said.

“A few years ago, people started talking about tuition rising by, like 16 percent each year — and students were protesting,” Youm said. “I’ve been expecting to have to pay more and more — not less and less.”

And so, she said, “a tuition discount would be incredible.”

— Reach Nanette Asimov at nasimov@sfchronicle.com

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