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$15 million UCLA scholarship from Peter Merlone to help 700 students
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$15 million UCLA scholarship from Peter Merlone to help 700 students

As rising college costs impede access to higher education, UCLA announced a $15-million gift to seed a new scholarship initiative to help students afford a Bruin education without loans.

The gift by California real-estate investor Peter Merlone will enable UCLA to grant individual scholarships totaling about $20,000 over four years to some 700 students beginning in 2024. It is part of a new UCLA Affordability Initiative designed to eliminate the burden of student loans.

Last year, UC President Michael V. Drake announced a systemwide initiative to provide a debt-free education to all undergraduates by 2030. UC has begun phasing in the program, offering more grants and work-study opportunities to one-quarter of new students this year.

“In this post-pandemic world, where everybody is more attuned and sensitive to the disparities in our community, making education more affordable is something that we just really need to focus on,” said Rhea Turteltaub, UCLA vice chancellor for external affairs. “This is essential.”

Other UC campuses also have begun to step up their financial aid. UC Berkeley, for instance, provided no-loan financial aid packages of grants, scholarships and work-study opportunities for the first time to 776 first-year students and 329 transfer students last year.

Merlone said he hoped to inspire other UCLA alumni to contribute to the initiative. When he attended UCLA in the 1970s, he said, the University of California charged no tuition and his room and board totaled about $1,800 a year.

Those costs have spiraled today. UCLA’s estimated cost of attendance is $38,517 for the 2023-24 academic year for state residents living on campus. Tuition makes up only 37% of that cost — with the majority of expenses going toward housing, meals, transportation, books and other outlays. Student living expenses are growing rapidly and usually are not fully covered by financial aid, unlike tuition which is paid through the state’s Cal Grant program for more than half of UC undergraduates.

The rising living costs are seen as a major entry barrier to UC for many of the state’s lowest-income students. More than 10,000 students with annual family incomes of less than $50,000 declined UC admission offers in 2021 and enrolled in community colleges and California State University campuses instead.

Many low-income families are hesitant to take out loans — the share of UC undergraduates with federal loans dropped by 35% in the last decade — and that reluctance seems to have grown since the pandemic, said Gary Clark, interim vice provost of enrollment management.

Such trends have prompted Merlone and UCLA to expand financial aid efforts.

“I simply want to make it more likely than not that students don’t have to borrow money to be able to go to the University of California,” Merlone said.

Merlone also began a scholarship program three years ago for UCLA-bound students from North Hollywood High School to honor his mother, a former student. But he said only a handful of students would accept admission offers — even though UCLA is the top-rated public university in the nation — because many of them could not afford the education and opted for lower-cost options.

Some of the best and brightest students, he added, would choose well-endowed private institutions that could afford to offer full rides. Merlone said he hopes to contribute to turning those trends around.

Merlone has not restricted his gift to low- and middle-income students, but UCLA officials said they expect to award many of the scholarships to those in need.

“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,” UCLA Chancellor Gene Block said in a statement.

The new initiative expands other efforts UCLA has launched in recent years. The UCLA Bruin Success Scholarship will provide about 1,000 students from families with the greatest financial need an additional $2,500 per year — up from $2,000 when launched last fall. Clark said the program may have helped UCLA last year bring in the highest number of students awarded federal Pell grants — 1,654 — since fall 2017. Pell grants are given to the neediest students, with family incomes of about $50,000 or less.

In addition, the Westwood campus is launching a pilot program this fall to provide $1,000 scholarships, awarded annually for four years, to about 150 freshmen from under-resourced high schools.

Peter Merlone is a founder, co-owner and managing partner of the general partner entities of Merlone Geier Partners and Merlone Geier Management (“MGM”). Mr. Merlone is also a founder, co-owner and president of the general partner entities of M&H Realty Partners (“M&H”), the predecessor to Merlone Geier, and was a founder and president of M&H Property Management (“MHPM”), the predecessor to MGM. From 1986 to 1993, prior to the formation of the first M&H fund, Mr. Merlone was the founder and owner of The Merlone Company, MHPM’s predecessor.

Mr. Merlone is a member of the Investment Committee, and his primary responsibilities are to formulate and oversee the strategy, financial and operating affairs of Merlone Geier and the activities of MGM. Since 1993, Mr. Merlone has overseen thirteen institutional limited partnerships with aggregate equity capital commitments of $4.5 billion which have acquired 174 operating properties aggregating over 28.7 million square feet of retail improvements.

Mr. Merlone graduated from UCLA in 1979, simultaneously earning an undergraduate degree in economics, summa cum laude, and a master’s degree in education; he was also elected to Phi Beta Kappa.

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