NerdWallet’s Guide to Financial Aid Programs in California

Kat Tretina
By Kat Tretina 
Edited by Mary M. Flory

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California is home to hundreds of top-notch universities and colleges, including the California Institute of Technology, Santa Clara University, Stanford University and the University of California, Los Angeles or UCLA.

With so many higher education options, it’s no surprise that 3 million students attend college in California. While the cost of education in California can be expensive, the state operates various financial aid programs that can make higher education more affordable. From grants and scholarships to free college financing workshops, there are many resources California residents can use to pay for school.

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The cost of education in California

California’s higher education system comprises three public segments: the University of California, California State University and California Community Colleges. Students can also choose from 150 private nonprofit schools and 160 for-profit schools.

If you are planning to attend a post-secondary school in California, here is how much you should expect your education to cost, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics:

  • Public four-year school: The average cost of attending a public four-year school as an in-state student in California for the 2020-2021 school year was $24,015, including tuition, fees, room and board — nearly 13% higher than the national average. 

  • Private non-profit school: Private schools are much more expensive than public institutions. The average cost in California is $53,680 — nearly 16% higher than the national average.

  • Public two-year school: The average cost of public two-year schools for in-state students was $1,285, less than half the cost of the national average.

Although those prices may be intimidating, keep in mind that you may not have to cover the entirety out of your pocket. You may be eligible for financial aid programs that reduce the cost.

Financial aid options in California

Regarding state-based financial aid, California stands out for its robust programs. From grants and scholarships to student loan repayment programs, students can qualify for a significant amount of assistance.

You must be a state resident to qualify for California’s financial aid programs. The residency criteria depend on your age and marital status.

  • If you are under 18, you must meet one of the following requirements: 

    • Your parents must have been legal California residents for one year before the year in which you are applying for financial aid.

    • You have a parent in the U.S. Armed Forces, stationed in California and on active duty when you enroll.

    • If you lived with another California resident who is not your parent, you must have lived with them for at least two years. 

  • If you are married or over 18: Married persons, regardless of age, and unmarried persons 18 or older must establish their own residency. You must live in California for at least a full year before applying for financial aid and show proof that you intend to make California your permanent home. Potential proof includes: 

    • California driver’s license.

    • Mortgage statement for a residential property in California.

    • Active California bank account.

    • Voter registration card.

    • California car registration and insurance.

    • State income tax return.

    • California utility bills.

Under the California Dream Act, undocumented students and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, recipients can qualify for state financial aid, including in-state tuition rates. To qualify, students must meet the following requirements:

  • Three or more years of full-time attendance at a California high school, adult school or community college.

  • Three or more years of full-time high school coursework and attended a combination of elementary, middle and high school for three or more years. 

🤓Nerdy Tip

Programs can change over time, so visit the California Student Aid Commission for details on financial aid opportunities and application requirements.

As a California resident, you may qualify for one or more of the following financial aid options:

  • 529 plans.

  • In-state tuition.

  • Grants.

  • Scholarships.

  • Student loan repayment assistance.

California 529 Plans

Unlike some states, California does not have a prepaid tuition plan. However, it does have a 529 college savings plan called ScholarShare 529. Under this program, parents and family members can invest money on behalf of a child. The money can grow and deliver compound earnings over time, and withdrawals for qualifying education expenses are tax-free. You can open an account with any dollar amount; the maximum balance is $529,000.

Contributions to ScholarShare529 are not tax-deductible on federal or California income taxes. But California does offer one unique benefit: the CalKIDS program. Through this program, children born on or after July 1, 2022, or who attend an eligible low-income public school within the state will receive a seed deposit to pay for their future education.

Qualifying newborns will receive up to $100 in seed deposits, and low-income students will receive up to $1,500.

California In-State Tuition

Public universities are generally much less expensive than private schools, but only if you attend a school within your state. However, California participates in programs that may allow California residents to attend select colleges in other states and pay a lower rate than out-of-state tuition cost.

  • Western Undergraduate Exchange: Through the WUE, eligible California residents will pay no more than 150% of the college’s in-state tuition rate. On average, savings total $10,895 per student.

  • Western Regional Graduate Program: WRGP allows graduate students to pursue master’s or doctoral degrees at partner universities and pay no more than 150% of the in-state tuition rate. 

  • Professional Student Exchange Program: The PSEP program is for students pursuing careers in specific healthcare fields. It allows them to attend school at partner schools at a lower rate. Eligible students can save between $34,100 and $133,600 throughout their programs.  

California Grants

California has six major grant programs available to college students:

Cal Grant Program

The Cal Grant program is for qualifying residents attending the Universities of California, California State Universities, California Community Colleges or eligible independent colleges or technical schools.

There are several awards within the Cal Grant program, but students don’t have to apply for each individually. Instead, the state determines your eligibility for each based on your responses on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, or the CA Dream Act Application, household income, the schools you list on your application and whether you’re a recent high school graduate.

  • Cal Grant Community College Entitlement: Low- to middle-income students can receive assistance with tuition and fees at a California community college. Low-income students also may qualify for an additional award for living expenses. 

  • Cal Grant High School Entitlement: This award is for low- to middle-income high school seniors and recent high school graduates. Students can use the grant to pay for their enrollment at two- or four-year schools. In addition, low-income students can qualify for an additional award for living expenses. 

  • Cal Grant Transfer Entitlement: Students who intend to transfer from a California community college to a four-year school may qualify for this award. Low-income students may be eligible for an additional award for living expenses. 

  • Cal Grant Competitive Awards: This award is only for students who do not receive an entitlement grant. It is a competitive award based on the student’s GPA, parent's education level, family income and household size. Only 13,000 awards are issued per academic year. 

  • Cal Grant Foster Youth: Current or former foster youth can qualify for this grant until their 26th birthday. It can help pay for up to eight years of undergraduate education. 

  • Cal Grant C Award: Students who intend to attend technical or vocational schools can receive up to $2,462 for tuition and fees and up to $547 for tools, books and supplies. 

California Chafee Grant for Foster Youth

Current or former foster youth can qualify for up to $5,000 through the California Chafee Grant for Foster Youth program. The money can be used toward your expenses at a qualifying California college, university, career or technical school.

California College Promise Grant

According to the Public Policy Institute of California, approximately 40% of California’s high school graduates enroll in community colleges — the fourth-highest percentage in the nation.

One of the reasons for the popularity of community colleges in the state is the California College Promise Grant. This grant waives student enrollment fees at eligible schools, and students can use other financial aid programs to cover the cost of textbooks or living expenses.

California Dream Act Service Incentive

The California Dream Act is for undocumented and DACA students attending school in California. Under the California Dream Act Service Incentive, students can get up to $4,500 per academic year in grants. To qualify for this award, students must complete at least 150 hours of community service or volunteer work for an eligible organization per semester.

The California Military Department GI Bill Award Program

This GI Bill program pays up to 100% of the tuition and fees at the Universities of California, California State Universities or a California community college for qualifying members of the California Army or National Guard, California State Guard or the California Naval Militia.

Golden State Education and Training Grant

The Golden State Education and Training Grant is a one-time award of $2,500 for Californians who lost their jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It can be used to learn new skills or get additional training to reenter the workforce.

Law Enforcement Personnel Dependents Grant

The Law Enforcement Personnel Dependents Grant is for the spouses and dependent children of employees who lost their lives in the line of duty or were totally and permanently disabled due to an accident or injury caused by violence or force while on duty. Eligible employees include:

  • Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

  • Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Division of Juvenile Justice.

  • Firefighters.

  • Law enforcement.

  • Tribal firefighters

As of the 2022-2023 academic year, qualifying students can receive up to $9,358 per semester.

California Scholarships

In California, some students may qualify for the Middle Class Scholarship. Under this program, students pursuing a teaching credential with less than $201,000 in family income and assets may be eligible for this award. Scholarship amounts vary by school and student.

California Incentive Programs

California instituted education incentive programs to encourage residents to live and work in the state — particularly in areas with shortages of health care professionals or educators. Students can receive money for their education in exchange for committing to working in high-need areas for a specific period.

If the student fulfills their obligation, the award is treated as a grant and does not need to be repaid. However, if the student doesn’t complete their service term, the award is converted into a loan and must be repaid.

California has the following incentive programs:

Golden State Teacher Program

The Golden State Teacher Grant Program awards up to $20,000 to students currently enrolled in a professional preparation program approved by the Commission on Teacher Credentialing and working toward their preliminary teaching credential. In exchange, participants must commit to working at a priority California school for four years within eight years of completing their program.

California Department of Health Care Access and Information Incentives

Through the HCAI, students and graduates pursuing careers in health care — including dentists, mental health counselors, nurses, pharmacists, physicians and social workers — can qualify for up to $25,000 for their education if they make a 12-month service commitment to work in a qualifying facility in an underserved area.

Other California Programs

Besides its scholarships, grants and incentive programs, California also offers Cash for College Workshops. Families can attend and get one-on-one assistance with completing the FAFSA or the California Dream Act Application.

Student loan repayment programs in California

If you’re a California resident and have outstanding student loans, you may be eligible for repayment assistance through the state. To address worker shortages, the state will repay a portion of your loans. In return, you must commit to working in high-need areas for a specific period.

The following student loan repayment assistance programs, or SLRAP, are available in California:

Health care professionals

Health care providers can qualify for a substantial amount of money to repay their loans through the following HCAI programs:

Allied Healthcare

Eligible health care providers who commit to 12-month service obligations in approved counties and sites can get up to $16,000 in loan repayment assistance. Federal and private student loans are eligible for repayment.

Bachelor of Science Nursing Loan

Registered nurses with BSN degrees can get up to $15,000 in loan repayment benefits in exchange for a 12-month service commitment in a medically underserved area. Federal and private student loans are eligible for repayment assistance.

California State Loan Repayment

Through the California State Loan Repayment Program, eligible health care professionals can receive up to $50,000 for an initial one-year service obligation in a federally designated health care professional shortage area. Practitioners can qualify for up to $50,000 in additional assistance by committing to another three years. Both federal and private student loans are eligible for repayment assistance.

County Medical Services

Primary health care professionals at approved county medical services sites can receive up to $50,000 for an initial one-year term. An additional $50,000 is available for working for another three years. In addition, both federal and private student loans can qualify for repayment assistance through the County Medical Services program.

Licensed Mental Health

Licensed mental health providers can qualify for up to $30,000 in loan repayment benefits. In exchange, they must complete a 24-month service obligation. The funds can be used to repay federal or private student loans.

Licensed Vocational Nurse

Licensed vocational nurses in good standing with the California Board of Vocational Nursing and Psychiatric Technicians can qualify for up to $8,000. They must commit to working for at least 12 months providing direct patient care in an approved facility. Federal and private students are eligible for repayment assistance.

Steven F. Thompson Physician Corps

Physicians and surgeons can receive up to $105,000 in loan repayment benefits if they work for at least three years in a qualifying facility providing direct patient care. Through the Steven F. Thompson Physician Corps, you can use repayment assistance to pay off federal and private student loans.


Like many states, California has a shortage of licensed veterinarians, leading to long waits for pet and livestock owners. As a result, the state has a loan repayment program to encourage veterinarians to practice within California.

California Veterinarian Shortage

Qualified veterinarians in California can get up to $25,000 per year (up to a maximum of three years) for student loan repayment by committing to working in high-priority veterinary shortage areas. Under the California Veterinarian Shortage program, veterinarians must care for food or large animals, practice in rural areas or work in public service. This program can be used to repay federal or private student loans.

How to apply for financial aid in California

To apply for California-specific financial aid, follow these steps:

  • Make a note of deadlines: The federal FAFSA deadline is June 30, but California’s deadlines are much earlier. The FAFSA or California Dream Act Application — and grant verifications — must be submitted by March 2. 

  • Fill Out the FAFSA or California Dream Act Application: You can complete the FAFSA or the California Dream Act Application online. 

  • Complete a GPA Verification: Work with your school counselor to complete the GPA Verification Form. Email the completed form as a PDF to [email protected]

  • Create a Web4Grants Account: After processing your FAFSA or California Dream Act Application, you will get an email telling you to create a Web4Grants account. You’ll use this account to upload additional information and view your grants. 

  • Check for other instructions: Some California-specific financial aid opportunities, such as the California Chafee Grant for Foster Youth and the Golden State Teacher Grant, have their own applications and requirements. Review the program’s website through the California Student Aid Commission to see what steps to take for these awards. 

Frequently asked questions

In California, students can qualify for a waiver of community college enrollment fees if they meet the following requirements:

  • They are California residents or qualifying undocumented or DACA recipients.

  • They are full-time students.

  • They are first-time college students.

Under the California Dream Act, undocumented students and DACA recipients are eligible for state financial aid, including state grants and community college waivers. They also qualify for in-state tuition rates at California public universities.

To qualify for California financial aid, you must complete the FAFSA or, if you don’t have a valid Social Security number, the California Dream Act Application.

Although the federal FAFSA deadline for the 2023-2024 academic year is June 30, 2024, California has separate deadlines to keep in mind. Most state financial aid programs had a deadline of March 2, 2023.

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