Sen. Mark Leno: Investing in education

As summer vacation winds down, families are getting ready for the first day of school. Students are filled with excitement and anxiety while parents, recognizing their children are another year older, are probably feeling a mixed bag of emotions.

Whether your child is entering kindergarten or high school this year, the increasing costs of college tuition are no doubt on your mind. For the 2012-13 school year, college costs, including tuition, books and room and board, are estimated at $23,400 for California State University campuses. The yearly investment in a University of California degree is $31,700, and a diploma from a four-year independent college runs $50,470 annually. For many families, these costs are impossible to manage without a large savings account, assistance from federal student loans, private financing or government grant programs.

Here are several city, state and federal programs that might help save money and ease the financial burden as your children enter college.

California programs - making college affordable
California's Student Aid Commission administers the state's Cal Grants Program, which provides students with cash for college that they don't have to pay back. Cal Grants are available to graduating high school seniors or recent graduates who meet academic, financial and eligibility requirements. Students may receive a grant of up to $12,192 per year to pay for expenses at any qualifying college, university or career or technical school in California. Depending on the type of grant, the money can be used for tuition, room and board, and even books and other supplies.

In addition to the Cal Grants Program, the Californian Student Aid Commission offers financial opportunities to students who are pursuing degrees in specific professions, including child development, teaching, nursing and law. Foster youth and dependents of law enforcement personnel may also be eligible for assistance.

To learn more about the Cal Grants Program and other opportunities mentioned above, visit the website at or call (888) 224-7268. Details on free "cash for college" workshops, which help students with the application process, are also available at the Cal Grants' website.

College savings programs
Anticipating your child's college tuition costs can be overwhelming and take a backseat to everyday expenses. By saving for college early, you can help make college affordable, avoid the stress of student loans and ensure that your child's future educational opportunities are not limited by financial constraints.

College savings plans can make a huge difference in planning for your child's future. Many states, including California, offer 529 College Savings Plans as a way for families to save for college while receiving beneficial state and federal tax breaks. California's ScholarShare college investment plan allows parents to make monthly investments, as little as $25, and earn these tax advantages. So far in California, about $4.7 billion has been invested in the ScholarShare program. For more details, call (800) 544-5248 or visit the websites at or

The city and county of San Francisco is also doing its part to help families save for college. Every child entering kindergarten in one of the City's public schools is automatically given a College Savings Account with a $50 deposit. The Kindergarten to College Program is the first automatic, publicly-funded, universal children's college savings account program in the nation. It is available through a partnership with the City, community partners and private philanthropists. This unique program, which offers incentives and matching funds for families who make contributions to the account, can give your child a significant head start to saving for college. Since the first Kindergarten to College account was opened two years ago, 1,000 San Francisco families have saved more than $300,000 for college through the program. For more information about Kindergarten to College, visit the website at or call 3-1-1.

Federal Pell Grants
The Pell Grant Program offers federally-funded assistance to students in the form of grants that do not need to be repaid. A Pell Grant is generally considered to be the foundation of a student's financial aid package, to which other forms of aid are added. Named after U.S. Sen. Claiborne Pell, the program is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education. In 2011, nearly $36 billion in federal grant aid was available to qualifying students, and roughly 9,413,000 of them received Pell Grants. The amount of a student's Pell Grant depends on the student's financial need, cost of education, school enrollment status, and length of attendance. Amounts can change annually. The maximum federal Pell Grant for the 2012-13 school year was $5,550. To learn more about Pell Grants or other federal assistance programs, visit the website at or call (800) 433-3243.

If you would like more information about these services or our legislative work, please contact our San Francisco office by phone at (415) 557-1300 or by e-mail at [email protected].

State Sen. Mark Leno represents the 11th Senate District of California.