Make Higher Education Free (Again)
A Plan for California
It took one year, with a typewriter and a bold vision, for the State of California to write and pass its 1960 (re)commitment of affordable, accessible, quality education for everybody — the California Master Plan for Higher Education. Today, 57 years later, that covenant to the people has been broken by the state. This comes after a long history started by then-Governor Ronald Reagan to slash the funding of higher education and expect individual students and families to take up the burden.
The people are this state’s most valuable asset, and we need to invest in their continued education. Education allows people to achieve their greatest potential and provides social mobility. Coming from an immigrant working class background myself, being exposed to the knowledge, resources, and network available at a UC campus multiplied my opportunity and potential in life. To put it in hard numbers, for every $1 spent on education, the state gets back $4.50 in new economic activity. That number is actually smaller than it should be; young people graduate college with so much debt, even after financial aid grants, they can’t even begin thinking of homeownership or even renting a place of their own. As a result of their decreased spending, our economy suffers.
As with all universally available programs, like Social Security and K-12 education, making higher education free for all is essential to its political longevity and public buy-in. Of course, it is not really free, though students wouldn’t be paying anything extra to enroll and sign up for classes. Students must be expected to use their knowledge to benefit the public good, maintain decent grades, and make steady progress to graduate in four years. Through their employment, these college graduates will be paying taxes to support future generations, including their children. It doesn’t make sense to front load the entire cost of education and burden the individual when the collective benefits are so great.
It costs only about $7.3 billion, according to the 2015-2016 state budget, to operate the best and greatest public university in the history of humanity, the University of California (UC). In the grand scheme of California’s $2.5 trillion economy, that is a relatively small price tag. It costs an additional $5.6 billion and $9.2 billion to operate the California State University (CSU) and California Community Colleges (CCC), respectively, for a grand total of $22 billion. To pay for that, the State of California, using general fund tax revenue, funds $6.3 billion to UC and CSU ($3 billion and $3.3 billion, respectively) and $5.4 billion to CCCs (as mandated by Proposition 98). Students and their families pay $5.4 billion in tuition either directly or through loans to UC ($2.7 billion plus $511 million in student fees), CSU ($2.3 billion), and CC ($426 million). The rest is made up by local property taxes at $2.8 billion to the CCCs along with $737 million in other revenue to CCC and $1.1 billion from the UC’s independent revenue (such as patent royalties. Fun fact: The most common strawberry in production was developed at UC Davis).
The takeaway from this bunch of numbers is that if we allocate $5.4 billion more to higher education, tuition will be eliminated for all at every public school in the State of California. Students will stop graduating with massive debt, and higher education will become a real possibility in the hearts and minds of all people.
How do we afford $5.4 billion? We tweak an antiquated law in the California Constitution that keeps property taxes capped at one percent and allocated entirely towards local government and K-14; you may know it as Proposition 13. A small increase of one-quarter of a percent, 0.25 percent, will raise approximately $15 billion above the $60 billion already raised. This will cost California homeowners and renters, paying on average $3,070 per year currently, $767 more a year, or $64 a month. In exchange, we all get a higher education at no additional cost to ourselves, our children, and their children with little to no student debt. We already provide K-12 for all through the one percent currently charged, this additional quarter of a percent will make an undergraduate and graduate education (not including Professional Degree Supplemental Tuition) available to every California resident.
Further reform can include instituting a 50-year automatic reassessment of commercial property values from the time of last assessment. This would allow the first reassessment to occur on a predictable basis in 2028 to property assessed in 1978 to be assessed to modern levels; the next year, 2029, it would be properties assessed in 1979, and so on. This will make sure large corporations like Disney pay their fair share. Most of all, this will put an end to the corporate loophole utilized by monied interests in California — where the ownership of corporations and partnerships that own real estate is transferred again and again to change majority-ownership-of-the-entity but not trigger a reassessment of the fair market value of the property — a practice that defrauds hardworking families. To ensure fiscal responsibility, any excess property tax raised from the 0.25 percent for higher education can either be given as a rebate to the taxpayer or invested in a California Higher Education Endowment, which can one day begin its own revenue to lighten the burden on the taxpayer for generations.
After this $5.4 billion “tuition buyout,” the remaining $9.6 billion can be used to relieve the $7 billion currently allocated the UC and CSU from the state general fund and the CCCs non-Prop 98 allocations. This $7 billion in the general fund can now be used for a myriad of programs that are sorely in need of additional funding and that can improve life in California, including childcare and the lowering of the regressive sales tax. The last $2.6 billion should be invested in a coordinated fashion to build much needed academic facilities, renovate old ones, and most of all to add new student housing.
Currently, many students who attend public schools live off campus where costs are usually lower than living in university residence halls. Landlords figure students will always pay to live near campus so they jack up rents, push out working families, and take advantage of students’ turnover rate. Building university-owned apartments near or on campus with rents below market rate, and without a profit motive, is the way to go. It will take a large load off of the housing stock in the communities near public universities, gives students an affordable option near campus that will also reduce transportation costs, and allow students to live in academic communities that are proven to improve performance in class. The current financial aid funded in the state budget known as CalGrant can be adapted to help those most in need afford housing and living expenses along with Federal Pell Grants, thus eliminating the need for student loans for the most part.
What is to stop the UC and CSU from deciding that the amount they get from the taxpayers is not enough and raising tuition again? This can be simply addressed — a constitutional mandate of no tuition, transparency and reporting mandates to the state and people, and mandated minimum percentages of in-state students per campus. Most importantly, reform the boards that govern the UC, CSU, and CCC so that half their members are elected directly by the people of California instead of undemocratically appointed. A slight change to terms of four to six years and replacing nine members with representatives of the people will greatly benefit the university by ensuring spending is directed toward student success, not needlessly inflating management salaries.
People say reforming Prop 13 is a “third rail” in California politics, but that is a narrative that we allow to exist by operating within it — none of these “political truths” have to ever remain true. This is not a final plan, but, hopefully, one of many real proposals to eliminate tuition in California. A higher education is increasingly necessary in our time, just like K-12 becoming guaranteed to all was necessary in its time — not many of us, thankfully, remember a time when only some people got to go to 8th grade. Public higher education, in essence, makes sense because we are all in this together. Economically, politically, socially, and morally, we prosper when we all prosper. To have prosperity within the reach of only a privileged few is an injustice and, specifically, a betrayal of our collective capacity to actualize a future brighter than our present.
Jonathan Abboud represents Isla Vista and Hope Ranch on the Santa Barbara Community College District Board of Trustees, serving as vice president of the Board for 2017. He attended UC Santa Barbara from 2010-2014 and served as Associated Students President in the 2013-2014 academic year.