Capitol Alert

Debt-free college? Assembly Democrats want to make it possible for California students

With books, student fees, housing and transportation, the cost of a college education runs many times higher than tuition prices that have come to dominate discussions on affordability.

A new budget plan from Assembly Democrats would expand the scope of financial aid, providing scholarships to low- and middle-income Californians for living expenses to help them graduate free of debt.

Under a proposal unveiled Monday, the multibillion-dollar program would phase in over five years, reaching an estimated 390,000 students at the University of California and California State University whose family incomes are less than $150,000 per year. Such significant new spending is likely to face steep resistance from Gov. Jerry Brown, who has warned repeatedly of the state’s shaky fiscal conditions.

The plan’s major component is a “Degrees Not Debt Scholarship” to fill the gap between existing state and federal financial aid and the full cost of attending a public university. When living expenses are included, that averages more than $23,000 at CSU and more than $33,000 at UC.

Students would be required to work 15 hours per week to cover some expenses and, if their income is more than $60,000, their families would be expected to contribute a portion as well. If fully implemented next year, supporters calculate the scholarships would cost the state about $1.6 billion, though that could drop as the minimum wage increases and students earn more.

“With these elements combined, this again would replace that necessity to go and get an outside student loan,” said Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento.

Other pieces of the proposal aim to make community college more accessible by providing one year of no tuition for full-time students and expanding grants to help lower-income students pay for living expenses, at a cost of about $100 million annually. Assembly Democrats are also seeking to maintain the Middle Class Scholarship, a state financial aid program for families making less than $150,000, that Brown has proposed cutting in this year’s budget.

The Brown administration said the change would be costly. “A noble goal that comes with a very significant price tag, and the question is, ‘How would you pay for it?’” said H.D. Palmer, spokesman for Brown’s Department of Finance. Palmer said the governor is trying to close a projected $1.6 billion budget deficit this year, but has taken steps to address the cost of college, including providing funding increases to UC and CSU in his budget proposal.

Alexei Koseff: 916-321-5236, @akoseff