LOS ANGELES — Were it not for the financial aid that helps cover the cost of his tuition, it is unlikely that Devonte Jackson would be able to attend the University of California, Berkeley.
The political science major has two campus jobs, but his $12,000 state-paid Cal Grant is the glue that holds his education dreams together. Tuition, books, housing and other fees top $31,000 annually.
But Cal Grants could become much harder to obtain for new students under restrictions proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown as part of his 2012-13 budget. One of the most contentious of them would increase the minimum grade point average needed to qualify for the two types of awards, which are merit- and income-based and are a key part of the financial aid package for many low- and middle-income students.
Cal Grant "A" currently covers tuition up to $5,472 at Cal State universities, up to $12,192 at the University of California and up to $9,708 toward tuition and fees at private colleges. Cal Grant "B," for students with lower incomes, provides $1,551 for books, living expenses and tuition assistance, typically for students attending community colleges.
Brown is proposing to increase the minimum GPA requirement for Cal Grant "A" recipients from 3.0 to 3.25 and for Cal Grant "B" from 2.0 to 2.75. The requirements for community college transfers to qualify for the grants would jump from 2.4 to 2.75.
Brown is also proposing to lower the award amount for students attending private, nonprofit schools to the CSU level, which critics say could dramatically reduce opportunities for low-income students who are accepted to private schools such as USC. If more of these students opted instead for public schools, state expenses could increase because California would pay more to subsidize them.
About 26,600 prospective University of California, California State and community college students would be affected by the changes in grade point averages in the 2012-13 academic year. Because the deadline for financial aid applications is March 2 and the state budget is unlikely to be finalized before summer, many students could be awarded provisional grants, only to have them canceled. Many students could still qualify for federal aid.
Brown's budget faces revision in the spring, but at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles educators are concerned for the 600 seniors expected to graduate.
"The majority of our kids are on the cusp of 3.0 or 2.7," said acting head counselor Carlo Marquez. "Where are they going to get the money? Many are going to have to work, and the pattern is once they start working, they're offered more hours and they forget about school. It's tough at a time when we're trying to get them to see the big picture and continue their education."
The governor argues that in a climate of fiscal constraints, financial aid should go to students most likely to complete their degrees — those with higher grades.
Participation in the Cal Grant program and its costs have increased dramatically, from 177,000 students and $688 million in 2004 to an estimated 256,000 students and $1.6 billion in the current fiscal year, according to state figures. Increasing the GPA requirements would save an estimated $131 million.
"Policy decisions are always going to be intertwined with the budget, and in this area the administration believes that raising the bar for Cal Grants is a good choice from a fiscal and policy perspective," said H.D. Palmer, spokesman for the state Department of Finance.
The Legislative Analyst's Office last week said that raising the GPA for Cal Grant "B" recipients might be warranted, but noted that raising the bar above 3.0 for others could affect large numbers of academically well-qualified students with low incomes.
This is not the first time the Cal Grant program has come under the budget knife. Opponents defeated several efforts by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to cut the program, said Diana Fuentes-Michel, director of the California Student Aid Commission, which oversees financial aid programs.
Cal State officials estimate that nearly 6,000 entering students and $36 million in financial aid could be affected. Most of these students would qualify for the university's grant program, which is funded by revenues from tuition increases.
"It puts an added strain on our institutional program, where we already have more eligible students than we can fund," said Dean Kulju, director of financial aid for Cal State.
UC officials estimate that the changes would affect 250 students next year, representing about $20 million. UC requires that all students who receive financial aid contribute up $9,400 through a combination of work and loans.
Officials said that university funds would be used to "backfill" the drop in Cal Grants but that the work/loan amount would increase.
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Community college officials said they had not yet determined the impact, although many two-year students obtain the lower-level grant awards that are most likely to be affected.
Jackson, at UC Berkeley, said the proposed changes are a hot topic on students' Facebook pages. It is unfortunate, he said, that some worthy students may miss the cut.
"These requirements will have a crippling affect on minority students who are already struggling to overcome an achievement gap," he said.
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