Rocky Chavez comes home next month, hopefully for good. He'll take up residency at Kern Medical Center, starting a new life in the very place where he first glimpsed this world 26 years ago.

It's a sweet irony, a poignant, coming-full-circle story, but it might never have happened if the present budget meltdown had occurred eight years ago. More to the point, new high school graduates in Chavez's situation -- economically disadvantaged, but gifted and motivated -- might not get the same chance he and countless others have had.

Why? Because California is so broke, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed cutting the Cal-Grant program -- targeted aid that has helped many thousands of Californians attend college. Grants awarded to 118,000 new college freshmen may be canceled, and another 82,255 continuing awards reduced.

Simultaneously, state colleges and universities are set to jack up their tuition fees, a devastating double-whammy that could prompt many young men and women to simply forgo college -- precisely at a time when the state (and the Central Valley in particular) needs a university-trained workforce more than ever.

To some, the Cal-Grant program might sound like just another entitlement program dragging down the overfed state budget. But look at who it's helped and what they've done. Take Chavez, who graduates today from the UC San Diego School of Medicine.

He'd have never made it through his first two undergrad years at Dominican University without help from a series of Cal-Grants, supplemented by work-study and off-campus employment. He proved himself in those first two years at the private San Rafael school, well enough to land an assortment of scholarships. Without those Cal-Grants, he might not have had the opportunity to present original research at three national research conferences, or earn a competitive internship at the University of Texas, where he participated in cancer research, or spend two summers as a research assistant at the Harvard School of Public Health.

He might not have made the jump to UCSD in 2005, or put himself in position to return home to Bakersfield and Kern Medical Center, where he begins his residency July 1.

"People who come from disadvantaged backgrounds are limited in their choices," Chavez said. "The Cal-Grant program gives them a chance. If this program goes away, you're cutting out those people completely."

Chavez, a Bakersfield High graduate, was raised in a one-bedroom house in Bakersfield with five siblings. He was the first in his family to attend college. Encouraged by a high school teacher who helped infuse him with the confidence to take the next academic step, Chavez discovered the Cal-Grant program at about the same time he found Dominican, a small, Catholic school that offered small class sizes and involved faculty.

"Rocky," Dominican University's Joseph Fink wrote in an e-mail last week, "is an example of the system working." The university president points out that Cal-Grant recipients who attend schools that belong to the federation of private colleges affiliated with his have a 64 percent four-year graduation rate, 10 points higher than students at those affiliated colleges overall. One possible conclusion: The state's financial vote of confidence, in the form of Cal-Grants, motivates recipients in a clearly measurable way.

But in the voter-mandated rush to square California's books, state officials are cutting where they can -- and, all too frequently, where they shouldn't.

"Students like me can be left out," Chavez said. "How many kids may decide they can settle for high school diplomas because they don't want to go in debt for college?"

And suddenly California is precisely in the position many feared Prop. 1A would take it: Waving goodbye to employers bound for other states. But for a different reason -- an undereducated workforce.

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