UCLA Affordability Initiative aims to reduce need for student loans, with donors’ support

$15 million commitment for undergraduate scholarships from alumnus Peter Merlone serves as lead gift

UCLA has introduced the UCLA Affordability Initiative, a campuswide effort to make an undergraduate degree more affordable by raising money for scholarships to eliminate the burden of student loans. The initiative aligns with a 2022 commitment by the University of California and state lawmakers to provide state residents with pathways toward a debt-free education by 2030.

Peter Merlone, a real estate investor who earned two degrees from UCLA in 1979, has made the lead commitment toward the UCLA initiative — a $15 million gift to create new undergraduate scholarships for California residents.

“UCLA was founded on the notion that access to a top-tier education should be available to talented individuals of all backgrounds and financial means,” said UCLA Chancellor Gene Block. “Peter Merlone’s gift, and the UCLA Affordability Initiative as a whole, will help us preserve our ability to attract stellar students from across the state — and set them up for success after graduation.”

Emily Reyna, a first-year undergraduate majoring in biology, said the financial support she received played a significant role in her decision to attend UCLA. “As a low-income student, I am very aware of high college expenses and it is my goal to graduate from college debt-free. Because of scholarships, my financial aid significantly increased and I do not have to worry about taking out loans.”

The objectives of the UCLA Affordability Initiative are twofold.

“First, UCLA is working to create a better understanding of the true cost of college and how that challenge is typically met, in part, through student loans,” said Gary Clark, UCLA’s interim vice provost of enrollment management and executive director of undergraduate admission. “Second, we’re seeking to provide an alternative to student loans. With enhanced scholarship support from philanthropists, we can reduce the financial pressure of obtaining a UCLA education and ensure UCLA is the first choice for all California students who receive offers of admission.”

The public conversation about college affordability often focuses narrowly on the cost of tuition. But that conversation neglects the total cost of education ― tuition plus the cost of housing, food, books, supplies, health insurance, transportation and personal expenses ― which is ultimately what presents challenges for many students and their families.

Typically, contributions from students, their parents and families, and scholarships and grants are combined to finance a college education. Students usually cover their portion of the cost by working during the academic year and summer breaks, and with educational loans.

Merlone’s gift will enable UCLA to grant four-year scholarships of approximately $20,000, awarded at about $5,000 per year, to up to 35 California resident students per year beginning in 2024. Over time, this will impact the lives of about 700 students.

For a student from a family that earns the state’s median annual income of $84,000, this additional scholarship could minimize ― and in some cases eliminate ― the need for student loans. Expected family contributions will vary depending on numerous factors, including family size, the number of children enrolled in college and income.

A California native whose philanthropic giving to UCLA dates back to 1994, Merlone wanted to provide today’s Bruins with the same financial freedom he enjoyed as a student.

“I attended UCLA in a different era, when student loans were rarely seen, and so it gives me great satisfaction to play a vital role in advancing the UCLA Affordability Initiative,” he said.

Merlone has supported student leadership development initiatives and undergraduate scholarships at UCLA since 2015. Most notably, he established a scholarship in memory of his mother, Carol L. Merlone, a 1942 graduate of North Hollywood High School, to give four-year awards totaling $40,000 each to all students from her alma mater who enroll at UCLA.

“I care about making an impact with my giving, and scholarships are the most direct means for me to do that,” said Merlone. “I know others share my concern for California’s students, and I hope my actions inspire more people to step forward with scholarship support.”

Merlone also helps cover the cost of education for members of the UCLA chapter of the Sigma Nu fraternity and is increasing his commitment to the fraternity’s alumni scholarship fund.

“Donors like Peter Merlone want every student to have access to all that UCLA has to offer, preparing them for bright and limitless futures,” said Rhea Turteltaub, UCLA’s vice chancellor for external affairs.