The University of California at Merced and West Hills College Coalinga will share a $3.25 million grant to improve college attendance rates for Latino and low-income students in the Central Valley.
The U.S. Department of Education grant, announced this week, is part of $20.5 million awarded to 33 colleges that are designated as Latino-serving institutions. To earn that designation, at least 25 percent of the school's student population must be Latino, and half of those students must come from low-income families.
While West Hills College Coalinga already is a Latino-serving institution, UC Merced meets the criteria and is working toward that designation.
UC officials say the grant is important because only about 14 percent of adults in the Central Valley hold college degrees, well below the state average of 29 percent.
Allen Carden, executive director of the Central Valley Higher Education Consortium, said the grant should help improve those numbers.
"It's absolutely a step in the right direction," Carden said. "If it is used correctly, I think it will make a difference. The biggest hurdle students face is a lack of information about making the jump to a four-year school. This grant should help bridge that information gap."
Maria Avila, who is studying biology at UC Merced, said she thinks the grant will be a big help to students like her, who face economic and cultural challenges. Avila came to Merced from Moorpark College in Simi Valley, where a similar program helped her make the transition to the University of California.
"I had a lot of pressure not to leave home, and not to attend college," Avila said. "Having the counseling from other Hispanics who understood those challenges was very helpful. Plus, having the program be at both the community college and the UC will mean the support will continue. That will help the students get to a four-year school and stay there."
The grant will pay each school $325,000 yearly for five years to fund academic support centers, tutors, community college and UC faculty collaborations and summer activities, all designed to help students transition from community college to UC Merced.
Carol Tomlinson-Keasey, chancellor at UC Merced, said the grant program will benefit other four-year schools as well.
"We want to encourage the community college and UC connection, but we also want to encourage any higher education connection in the Central Valley," Tomlinson-Keasey said. "This program will help us achieve those goals, and will be a tremendous boon for this area."