Until now, financial aid for the state's public college and university students has been based almost entirely on need and was awarded to the least affluent segment of the student population. Students from middle-income families have had little opportunity for tuition relief, and the burden of student loans can weigh on all students for years after they graduate - if they do - which in turn can contribute to keeping the economy in the doldrums.
At last, a financial program that would make higher education significantly more affordable for some middle class Californians may be on the horizon.
The Middle Class Scholarship Program (A.B. 1501), was introduced by Assembly Speaker John A. Perez, D-Los Angeles Feb. 8. If it's passed by the required two-thirds vote of the Legislature - which means some Republican legislators would have to vote with Democrats - it would reduce tuition fees for middle-income families at our state's public colleges and universities by two thirds.
UC and CSU students would fill out standard financial aid forms and those whose families earn less than $150,000 a year would receive a scholarship unless their fees are already covered. Under current rules, families whose incomes don't exceed $80,000 usually qualify for grants. For large families, the income cut-off is higher.
Tuition at the state's public universities has risen by over 200 percent in the last decade. Currently, resident UC undergraduates who carry a normal course load pay about $12,200 a year, not including required fees that can add over $2,500. CSU undergrads pay about $6,000 a year.
The scholarship's tuition cuts would apply to about 42,000 UC students who would save about $8,200 annually, and to about 150,000 CSU students, who would save over $4,000 a year.
Community colleges would also benefit. They would receive $150 million to be spent as each community sees fit.
The beauty of this plan is the way it's to be funded. Currently, out-of-state corporations who do business in California are permitted to select the lower of two tax rates from a formula that includes in-state sales, payroll and property taxes. This tax break was approved in 2009 by a few Republicans who voted for temporary increases on other taxes.
Under the Middle Class Scholarship proposal, the $1 billion that would accrue from rescinding this corporate tax boon would fund the middle-income scholarships).
It's long overdue, but political pundits say not even Gov. Jerry Brown can be counted on to give it strong support because he has his own proposal. (He wants to increase taxes on the wealthiest Californians and levy an additional 1-cent sales tax.)
A survey by the Public Policy Institute of California conducted in November, 2011 shows that 65 percent of California residents are "very concerned about increasing tuition and fees.: Parents of children already in the higher education system are even more concerned (77 percent), as are current students (70 percent).
Regarding affordability, 70 percent of all Californians, cutting across parties, regions and demographic groups, say the high price of college keeps qualified and motivated students from matriculating. Not surprisingly given the economy's downhill slope, it's much harder for young people to pay for college than it was for their parents.
It wasn't always this way. When I emigrated from the East Coast to Altadena with my family in 1968, three things Californian impressed me indelibly - that flowers bloomed in winter, that passersby often smiled at me, and most of all, that California offered a wonderful and inexpensive higher education system. That topped the list because academia was my mecca.
We came West because my husband was accepted a faculty position at Caltech.
In 1977 my daughter, Debra, was ready for college, but there was no thought of private colleges then.
Debra enrolled in Cal State Long Beach, which she chose for its excellent writing curriculum, and three years later, my son, Steven, enrolled at UC Davis, another excellent school. I believe we paid under $150 per semester tuition for Debra and a comparably low amount for Steve.
Now Debra's son and daughter are in private colleges. For Steve's son and daughter, ages 10 and 7, who knows?
Flowers still bloom in winter in Southern California, but not many passersby smile any more.
I hope that will soon change for the better.