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The reality of college tuition debt was on display at the Northeastern University graduation at the TD Garden on May 03, 2019. (Photo: Suzanne Kreiter/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

For the Greater Good—California Looks to Restore Free College

We are now moving closer to a future where California's youth can leave college and fulfill their dreams of starting a business, a family, or buying a home

Reginald Jones-Sawyer

America's student loan crisis has Washington tied in knots. Collectively, Americans owe some $1.7 trillion in student loan debt. This debt is saddling a generation (and their parents) for the crime of getting a higher education. Beyond its harm to families, this debt is having a ripple effect throughout the economy. According to Bloomberg, homeownership rates among 18 to 35 year olds with student loans dropped 24% in the decade ending in 2019.

Since 1979, California State University tuition and fees have risen 1360%, while University of California tuition and fees have climbed 555%.

Asian and Black debt holders have been hit the hardest, with Latino debt holders close behind.  Brookings has found that the current student loan system—originally designed to make college affordable for middle and low-income families—has become highly regressive economically and is contributing to the racial wealth gap. This student debt crisis has led to calls for partial or full forgiveness of students' existing debt from leaders like Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, but so far, a consensus in DC has been elusive.  

While Washington struggles with how to resolve the problem of existing debt, we in California are pushing forward to deal with the problem on the front end—by creating a system of free higher education that will keep students from having to take on debt. It's frankly not a new idea in California. Over forty-five years ago, the California public higher education system was tuition free. Higher education was appropriately viewed as a public good—just as we view elementary and secondary education. Any California resident, regardless of income, could attend college without paying any tuition. 

Decades later, we have lost that commitment to post-secondary education as a public good and placed access to higher learning behind ever increasing tuition and fees and student debt. In recent decades the cost of a public college or university education in California has escalated. Since 1979, California State University tuition and fees have risen 1360%, while University of California tuition and fees have climbed 555%. Additionally, costs of attendance, such as food and housing, have risen 40% since 1979, further adding to the financial stress of students. 

Too many of our students are entering a cycle of indebtedness from which they may not emerge for decades. Shockingly, the Wall Street Journal reports that people over 60 years of age collectively owe some $86 billion in student loan debt for themselves and their children. This situation is not sustainable. But we can solve it if higher education in California returns to its roots.        

This is why I introduced Assembly Bill 295 (AB 295): Free College for California Students. Under the bill, a working group will be created to design a system of free post-secondary education. And free doesn't just mean tuition. It includes all the other expenses associated with college like books and room and board. This new system would be universally available to any California resident. 

The good news is that AB 295 is gaining support. 

AB 295 is supported by the American Academy of Pediatrics, California; the California Faculty Association; Generation Up; and the Reclaim California Higher Education Coalition

The best news, however, is that AB 295 is moving through the California legislature. It has already been approved by the Assembly's Higher Education Committee by a vote of 9 to 1 and passed the Appropriations Committee. The bill was voted on the floor of the Assembly and passed with overwhelming support moving out of the Assemby's house and onto the State Senate.

We are now moving closer to a future where California's youth can leave college and fulfill their dreams of starting a business, a family, or buying a home. And we are moving closer to a future where parents don't have to take second jobs, deplete their savings, mortgage their house or take on debt to pay for the cost of college. The benefit to these students and families of this new system is obvious. But the truth is that all of California will benefit. Four-year college graduates earn 65% more over their lifetime according to the U.S. Bureau of Statistics. That means more revenue for the state and fewer social services. 

Free college will also unleash the potential of all our students regardless of their income, race, or ethnicity. This will greatly enhance California's economic competitiveness while helping to eliminate cycles of intergenerational poverty among all demographic groups. That's a future we can all get behind. It can't come soon enough.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Reginald Jones-Sawyer

Reginald Byron Jones-Sawyer, Sr. serves as the voice of the people of California's 59th District in the State Assembly. He was elected to the State Legislature in November 2012 and re-elected in 2014 and 2016. The district he represents encompasses a wide-range of diverse, culturally rich and dynamic communities. It lies entirely within Los Angeles County and includes the neighborhoods of South Los Angeles, Florence-Firestone, Walnut Park, and a portion of Huntington Park. 

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