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Paying for college is a challenge for most families.

Despite best efforts to save and utilize cash flow, many of us face a shortfall when it comes to paying the tuition bill. Fortunately, the state of California offers a number of programs to help families cover college costs. Check out our brief breakdown of resources below.

Need-Based Financial Aid Programs

  • Cal Grant: The Cal Grant is free money for college and can be used at any eligible California public or private college, university, or career/technical school. To qualify, a student must complete the FAFSA or California Dream Act Application (CADAA) and demonstrate financial need at their school of choice. They must also maintain Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP). Award amounts and income and asset limits vary based upon the type of institution attended.
  • Middle-Class Scholarship: The Middle Class Scholarship is a program meant to help middle-income families attend a California State University (CSU) or University of California (UC) school. Families must submit the FAFSA or CADAA, and, while eligibility standards change from year to year, for the 2023/24 school year, annual family income and family assets must each be below $217,000. Scholarship amounts vary based upon the college’s cost of attendance and other financial aid received.
  • Blue & Gold Opportunity Plan: The Blue & Gold Opportunity Plan ensures that students with a family income of less than $80,000 per year can attend a UC tuition-free. Like the other need-based grant programs discussed, submission of the FAFSA or CADAA is required to determine eligibility.

Merit Scholarship Programs

  • Regents Scholarship: The most prestigious scholarship in the University of California system is the Regents Scholarship. This award recognizes academic excellence and is available at all UC campuses. All students who submit their University of California Application for Admission and Scholarships by November 30 will be considered, though competition across the campuses is strong. Award amounts may vary by campus and upon the student’s financial need and receipt of other financial aid programs. Other benefits may accompany the scholarship, such as special academic programming, networking opportunities, and priority housing selection.
  • Other Campus-Based Scholarships: Students may be considered for additional campus-based scholarship opportunities at each UC, CSU, or California Community College (CCC) based upon their application for admission. Continuing students may have to register on an institution’s scholarship portal in order to be considered for returning student scholarships.

Community College Transfer Program

While not a financial aid program in and of itself, students can save tremendous amounts of money by beginning their college career at a local community college, then transferring to a four-year school to complete their bachelor’s degree. The California public higher education system prioritizes this community college pathway. All CCCs have transparent articulation agreements with the CSU and UC systems that guarantee credit transfer and—in some circumstances—guarantee admission as a transfer applicant. Read about transfer to a CSU or UC here, and find full California public college articulation agreements on the Assist website.

Regional Reciprocity Program

California also participates in the regional reciprocity program known as the Western Undergraduate Exchange (WUE). WUE is an agreement between 17 member states and territories in the western United States allowing students to enroll in participating programs at out-of-state colleges for no more than 150% of the in-state resident tuition rate. Member states and territories include Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Guam, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, Wyoming, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. Residents of other states can attend a California public school at a discounted tuition rate, and California students can attend an out-of-state school with a similar discount. It’s important to note, however, that not all public colleges within member states participate in the discounting program. For example, Merced currently is the only participating UC campus.

As you can see, there are a number of ways for California families to save money on college. In addition to the large-scale programs noted above, there are other state-based aid programs for California students in foster care, undocumented students, veterans, Native Americans, and more. Review the California State Aid Commission website, along with the websites of colleges of interest, to learn more about available tuition discounting programs.


Bright Horizons College Coach® is the nation’s leader in educational advising. We help students and families across the country navigate the path to college, with a team of experts—all former admissions and financial aid decision-makers at top schools—who know the process from the inside. Collectively, we’ve helped more than 32,000 families successfully manage every aspect of college admissions, from choosing schools, to creating stand-out applications, to economically saving, and financing it all. Visit the Bright Horizons website.