Could California Offer Debt-Free College?

UCLA's Royce HallEXPAND
UCLA's Royce Hall

The raison d'être of the University of California, Cal State University and community college systems is to give anyone a shot at a degree. But the cost of attending UC schools has tripled in 20 years, during which time the flow of state tax dollars to higher education has slowed.

The Master Plan for Higher Education, adopted in the postwar golden year of 1960, reaffirmed California's "commitment to the principle of tuition-free education to residents of the state," according to a summary. A generation later, in 1978, Californians began to pull the plug on financing education, a result of the property tax cap known as Proposition 13. And now it costs more than the median individual income in L.A. County ($28,337) to send a child off to UCLA (at least $32,583).

Student debt has been a hot topic lately, and then–presidential candidate Bernie Sanders made it even hotter last year when he proposed tuition-free college. This week, the effort to lower the cost burden for students continued as members of the state Assembly budget and higher education committees announced "Degrees Not Debt" legislation. The proposal would give students one year of free community college, preserve so-called Middle Class Scholarships and provide resources for students' living costs, which often can outweigh tuition and fees in housing-crisis markets like Los Angeles.

"This goes beyond tuition and fees by moving the conversation forward, taking into consideration unmet needs such as living expenses, room and board and transportation," says Lupita Cortez Alcalá, executive director of the California Student Aid Commission, the state's student financial aid agency.

The cost of the legislation is estimated at $1.5 billion over five years — just a hair under California's $1.6 billion, five-year tax giveaway to the TV and film industry, according to the office of Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, who's a sponsor of the college funding legislation. The funding would be phased in year to year and would cut student debt by 20 percent each time, his office claims.

The legislation also proposes fill-the-gap aid through a Degrees Not Debt scholarship. The scholarship would cover any costs that remain after contributions from the student, who would be required work part-time, and from parents whose annual income is greater than $60,000. The scholarship would supplement Cal Grants, University Grants and the Middle Class Scholarship.

The budget package also would preserve scholarships for families with $150,000 or less in income. Those Middle Class Scholarships are on Gov. Jerry Brown's chopping block. McCarty's office estimates that a phase-out of the program would cost Cal State University students $9,000 in increased student debt; UC students could see $20,000 in extra debt.

It's not clear if the lower-house Democrats behind the legislation, including Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon of Paramount, have enough support to overcome the governor's desire to save cash. However, voter concern over the price of a public degree these days is high. The Public Policy Institute of California found late last year that 57 percent of Golden State residents believe college affordability is "a big problem." Nearly half of respondents (46 percent) said cost was the most important issue facing public colleges in the state.

There's also concern that President Trump's administration, wary of California's pro-immigrant policies, will try to squeeze federal dollars going to the state, creating a greater need in Sacramento to cut spending. "There may be federal programs that might not be supported as in the past," Cortez Alcalá says.

However, she argued that the Degrees Not Debt proposal is worth fighting for.

"I think a lot of families were suffering in silence," she says. "It's one of those issues where you're so proud of your kid for getting into college you don't want to admit it's a financial burden to send them. It's refreshing that people are being real about the costs. It is a struggle for lower-income families."


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