Graphic by Austin Linthicum/Mustang News

As the California State University’s Board of Trustees debates increasing tuition to fill a gap in state funding, a new plan is arguing for the opposite.

Reclaim California’s Master Plan for Higher Education advocates for tuition-free higher education, which would cost the median-income California family an additional $48 per year.

The plan seeks to restore the Donahoe Act of 1960, which recommended state colleges, including Cal Poly, remain tuition-free for in-state students. In 2015, more than half of University of California and CSU seniors graduated with more than a diploma: they also carried $1.3 billion in student debt. According to the report, the state’s public university students have accumulated $12 billion in debt since 2004.

It would cost $9.43 billion in 2016-17 to fully fund projected enrollment rates and eliminate tuition in all three segments of California’s public higher education system. This can be covered through an annual income tax surcharge that would cost two-thirds of state households less than $150 per year and households in the top five percent about $7,100 per year.

This would eliminate almost all new student debt, according to the report.

Report author and University of California, Santa Barbara English professor Christopher Newfield said affordability is what sets his program apart.

“We want today’s generation of students to have the same deal we had years ago,” Newfield said. “We don’t think it’s fair for millennials to be the first generation to start life with massive debt for doing what they were told to do, which was to finish college.”

When asked about opposition from higher income brackets, Newfield said we should shift to using the tax system and not the college financial aid system to support public goods like bachelor’s degrees.

“Some people argue against free college by saying, ‘Do you want Donald Trump’s son not to pay tuition to go to college?’ My answer is ‘Yes, I do.’ Donald Trump’s son should get free college, too — as long as his father pays his income tax,” Newfield said.

California legislators have introduced at least three dozen bills this year aiming to make college more affordable, including proposals to freeze tuition, demystify student loan statements and make textbooks cheaper.

“People think the likelihood of any version of free college is low,” Newfield said. “On the other hand, it went from a fringe idea to a mainstream Democratic campaign idea in the space of a few months in 2016.  We had free college in California and most states until the 1980s, and we can have
it again.”

Another recent report initiated by assemblyman Kevin McCarty takes an alternative approach in reducing total debt college students carry. Under the Creating a Debt Free College program, California could help students get through college without debt — but at a hefty proposed cost of $3.3 billion annually, according to the California Legislative Analysts Office (LAO).

Author and analyst for the LAO Paul Golaszewski said that moving to cover both tuition and living expenses would carry a significant price tag and that implementing the plan in full force is unlikely.

“We could have a much more modest, scaled down version of the program,” Golaszewski said. “California could set aside a fixed amount of money and distribute it to the most neediest students first.”

The report proposes several variations, including limiting the time spent in college to four years and modifying requirements for part-time students.

Comparing the Debt Free report to that of Reclaim California, Golaszewski advises that the latter focuses exclusively on eliminating tuition.
“The report that I worked on is more targeted towards students who demonstrate financial need and would provide all of their college costs — tuition and living expenses,” Golaszewski said. “Forty eight dollars only looks at getting rid of tuition and would be broadly for all students.”

Currently, the Cal Grant funds about $2.3 billion of tuition for students. At Cal Poly, 12,571 undergraduate students receive financial aid, covering an average of 93 percent of their tuition costs.

Business administration freshman Jose Hernandez said increasing income taxes to pay for college is great while he is in school, but feels that having the entire state pay extra taxes when they are not in college is unfair.

“People already pay a lot for taxes and I feel like for a lot of families this would not be affordable,” Hernandez said.

On the other side, aerospace engineering junior James Rockett said most families would be willing to pay more in taxes to make it so everyone living in California has equal access to education.

“Education is really important and paying for school shouldn’t prevent people from reaching their full potential,” Rockett said.

Correction: A previous version of this graphic said that the highlighted bracket was $39,000 to $39,999. It has been corrected to say $39,000 to $49,999.

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