Capitol Alert

‘Free college’ is a new rallying cry in California

When State University of New York and City University of New York students return to campus this fall, tens of thousands of low-income undergraduates will pay no tuition under a new scholarship program.

Rhode Island will also begin to cover tuition for nearly all recent high school graduates entering the state’s community college.

And San Francisco will, for the first time, waive enrollment fees at City College of San Francisco for any resident.

Concern over soaring tuition rates and ballooning student debt has propelled a rapidly expanding campaign for free public higher education at the local, state and even national level. In California, lawmakers, gubernatorial candidates and education advocates are among those pushing for ways to get rid of fees and other costs for some students.

“We could be even more audacious in what we ask for from the state,” said Maggie White, a master’s candidate in public administration at California State University, Stanislaus, and president of the California State Student Association. “Students are a lot more successful when they’re not working so hard to meet their basic needs.”

“Free college,” a useful catchall term for these efforts, encompasses everything from a transitional year without fees at a community college to proposals that would eliminate tuition for every student at every public college or university in the country. Existing programs are often limited by residency, income level, grade point average and course load; the New York scholarship, for example, requires students to live and work in the state after graduation for as long as their grant lasted.

Supporters argue that free college could reopen access to a path toward economic stability that is increasingly out of reach for many Americans. Opponents caution that removing students’ financial responsibility for their education could diminish their incentive to graduate in a timely manner.

Then there is the question of how to buy out tuition in an era of squeezed public budgets, a conundrum that can cause even those open to the concept to think twice. When a free college proposal first surfaced in California in March, a spokesman for Gov. Jerry Brown’s Department of Finance dismissed it as a “noble goal that comes with a very significant price tag.”

The current movement traces back to Kalamazoo, which in 2005 created a scholarship to cover up to four years of tuition and fees for any graduates of the local school district who attend college in Michigan. Hundreds of cities across the country followed suit with their own so-called “promise” programs.

California now has more than 50, usually connecting high school students to their nearby community college. In 2014, Tennessee launched the first statewide initiative to cover community college and technical school fees for recent high school graduates. It has reportedly raised enrollment among first-time freshmen by 30 percent, and qualifications will expand next year to include all adults in the state without a college degree.

The insurgent campaign of Democratic presidential candidate and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders brought the issue to national prominence. Free public college tuition for all was a central tenet of Sanders’ platform, energizing scores of young voters, and while he lost, his success pulled eventual Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s position closer to his own.

Sanders has since tried to keep the issue alive, introducing a bill in April that would pay for tuition at public colleges and universities nationwide for students with family incomes below $125,000 and make community colleges free by taxing speculative financial trades. The proposal has little chance of passing in a Republican-controlled Congress. Yet in a sign of how quickly free college has been adopted as a mainstream liberal cause, Sanders unveiled the bill with more than a dozen legislative co-sponsors, including California Sen. Kamala Harris.

Lawmakers in Sacramento are taking up the mantle as well. As the University of California and California State University voted early this year to raise tuition for the fist time in six years, legislative Democrats introduced a handful of free college proposals. None gained much political momentum, but the authors plan to continue their work next year, illustrating the different approaches toward a common goal of tackling affordability.

Assemblywoman Susan Talamantes Eggman, D-Stockton, pitched universal access: a 1 percent tax on annual California household incomes of $1 million or more that could be combined with existing federal and state financial aid to eliminate tuition and fees for all Californians studying at UC, CSU or community colleges in the state.

She said keeping the plan simple – to explain and to administer – could make it easier to build support, particularly among middle class families that would not have to worry about falling out of eligibility because of an income ceiling. Free college, she added, should be an investment in the entire state, rather than just needy individuals.

“Let’s not make this more difficult than it is. We already do this for K through 12, and nobody bats an eyelash about it,” Eggman said.

A week earlier, Assembly Democrats unveiled a “debt-free” college plan that would expand the scope of financial aid to cover living expenses for the nearly 400,000 UC and CSU students whose families make less than $150,000 per year. The $1.6 billion program would be phased in over five years, and, like Eggman’s idea, it would work as a “last-dollar” scholarship to pay for whatever educational costs remain after accounting for the other aid students receive, family contributions and earnings from a part-time job. The proposal would also get rid of fees for full-time students in their first year of community college.

“I don’t support tuition-free for those who have unlimited resources to pay for their education,” said Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, one of the main proponents of the Degrees Not Debt plan. He said he would rather put the support behind helping lower-income students attend school full-time, which gives them a much greater chances of success. “It’s not a purity test. It’s, where can we get our biggest bang for our buck?”

Students have been vocal in encouraging policymakers to think about the problem of college affordability beyond just tuition: Housing is often their largest expense, because so many California schools are located in the most expensive communities in the state. Then there are books, food and transportation.

The annual cost of attendance averages about $25,000 at CSU and more than $30,000 at UC once living expenses are factored in. Though tuition and fees for a California community college student are, at under $1,400 for a full-time load, the cheapest in the nation, they have the fewest financial aid options available for other costs.

“Tuition is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Judith Gutierrez, a fourth-year politics major at UC Santa Cruz and president of the University of California Student Association. “It’s really difficult to keep up financially.”

A Legislative Analyst’s Office report from January found that 53 percent of UC and CSU students graduate with debt averaging $19,500. It concluded a “debt-free” program for all public university and college students in the state would take another $3.3 billion per year.

That same month, UCSA endorsed an even more sweeping proposal: The $48 Fix, a free-college brainchild of 17 California faculty associations, university employee unions and advocacy organizations. The plan suggests an income tax surcharge, adjusted by income level but averaging $48 per household, that would provide $9.4 billion annually to make all three public higher education segments in California tuition-free and restore per-student funding from the state to the same level as 2000.

Amy Hines-Shaikh, director of the coalition that developed the proposal, said they want to return the state’s public colleges and universities, which for decades charged no tuition for California residents, to their roots: “We are hoping this gets injected more into the gubernatorial debate.”

It’s certainly possible as a large field of candidates seeks to succeed Brown next year. The California Democratic Party passed a resolution supporting the plan last week.

Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom favors a statewide “promise” program that would include two years of free community college. A spokeswoman for Democrat Delaine Eastin said she supports tuition-free college, and campaign representatives for Democrat John Chiang and Republican John Cox said they plan to address the issue of affordability, though specific policies are not available yet.

Maxwell Lubin, a UC Berkeley graduate student, also recently launched Rise California, a campus-based political organization to elect legislative and gubernatorial candidates in 2018 who support free college.

Some higher education experts noted that California already has arguably the most generous financial aid system in the country. It spends more than $2 billion annually on programs such as the Cal Grant, which covers up to four years of tuition at UC and CSU for low- and middle-income students with a minimum 3.0 high school GPA. Community colleges waive enrollment fees for half of their 2 million students because of need, while UC and CSU each provided more than $700 million in aid last year.

Lupita Cortez Alcalá, executive director of the California Student Aid Commission, said the Cal Grant is comparable to New York’s new scholarship, which gained national attention as the country’s first free college program for four-year universities. The New York scholarship is for students from families that make less than $100,000 per year, a limit that will rise to $125,000 over the next three years; the income ceiling for Cal Grant eligibility this year is $95,400 for a family of four, and it includes no requirement to stay in California after graduation.

“It’s an entitlement in California,” Cortez Alcalá said. “It’s progressive and generous.”

Alexei Koseff: 916-321-5236, @akoseff