California plans to guarantee tuition subsidies for nearly a third of high-school graduates from next year in a "historic" move that bucks the trend away from government grants in the United States.
The state legislature unanimously passed the programme, an extension of its Cal Grants, which is designed to help high-achieving children from poor families to go to college. The grants will be awarded on a sliding scale according to the student's grade point average, size of family and income, and the type of college in which they have won a place. Governor Gray Davis said: "This historic agreement sends a message to all students: if you do your part to succeed, we'll do our part to make every opportunity available.
"Every student at every high school who works hard to maintain grades high enough to gain admission to college or university, but needs a financial boost, will be guaranteed financial aid."
Eligibility ranges from students living on their own earning $23,500 (Pounds 15,900) to those from a family of six or more on an income of $74,100 or less. Neither the student nor their family can have more than $45,400 in assets.
The amount of aid will vary, but could be as much as $10,000 a year - more than half the typical cost of tuition, room and board - for a student attending a private university. Students who attend a public university in California would be eligible for the full cost of tuition.
Only a handful of states guarantee financial aid to needy students, and none to such a large extent. Even the Cal Grant programme last year helped only 17 per cent of eligible applicants, turning away an estimated 80,000 eligible students because the money ran out. Most student assistance in the US consists of loans, not grants.
Many private US universities admit that they consider the applicant's ability to pay when making acceptance decisions, a departure from the traditional "need-blind" admission, which held that any student who worked hard and was smart enough could attend the school of his or her choice.
The programme does not come cheap. It is expected to cost $1.2 billion annually by 2006.