Effort to Restore California’s Master Plan Advances

BY HANK REICHMAN

In January, the Reclaim California Higher Education Coalition issued a report, The $48 Fix, which demonstrated that California could provide today’s students with the same accessible low-cost university experience that California successfully offered its students from the 1960s through the 1990s through an income surtax of no more than $48/year for the median California taxpayer, less if other sources of revenue are employed.  (See my previous post to this blog, The $48 Fix: Reclaiming California’s Master Plan.)  The report has been endorsed by, among others, the California Conference of the AAUP and the AAUP-affiliated California Faculty Association.

The report joined a growing national chorus calling for a return to low-cost, high-quality higher education and the abandonment of the high-fee, high-debt model of funding that has evolved in recent decades.

Now there are signs that those voices are gaining a hearing in California.  State legislators have proposed over 30 bills this year to make college more affordable for Californians.  These come after the University of California regents this January approved a 2.5% tuition increase and the California State University trustees in March approved a 5% tuition increase.

On March 13, leaders of the Democratic majority in the California Assembly, including Speaker Anthony Rendon and members of the Assembly Budget and Higher Education Committees, announced a higher education budget package designed to reduce student debt and make college more affordable for the nearly 2.8 million undergraduate students in California’s University of California (UC), California State University (CSU) and California Community College (CCC) systems.

Specifically, the “Degrees Not Debt” budget package would:

  • Establish Degrees Not Debt Scholarships: 
    • Degrees Not Debt Scholarships will be available to some 390,000 CSU and UC students.
    • The Degrees Not Debt Scholarships recognize the full cost of college and will be awarded to all recipients of Cal Grants, University Grants, and Middle Class Scholarships to replace student debt.
    • The Degrees Not Debt Scholarships will be phased in over a five year period, thereby reducing student debt by 20% each year until debt free college is fully achieved.
  • Make Community College More Affordable: 
    • Provide tuition-free community college for the first year for full time community college students and expand the Success Grants program to assist lower income students cover living expenses.
  • Protect the Middle Class Scholarship:
    • Protecting the Middle Class Scholarship enables 55,000 students to avoid having out-of-pocket tuition costs spike by up to 40 percent.
  • Support efforts to avoid tuition increases at CSU, UC and Community Colleges.
  • Improve access to College Saving Accounts to help families save to cover their expected contributions.

“A college education is the greatest gift we can give to our children.  Eliminating the debt burden of our graduates will free them to achieve even more success and stability in life,” said Assembly member Phil Ting (D-San Francisco), Chair of the Assembly Budget Committee.  “Getting into college is challenging.  Figuring out how to pay for it should not be more difficult.  Access to aid dramatically increases the odds students enroll in college and graduate.”

According to the California Assembly Democratic Caucus, the program would be implemented over five years and cost $1.6 billion with an initial cost of $320 million and an additional $100 million for the community college provisions.

Under the new plan, students still would have access to existing financial aid, including federal Pell Grants, state programs such as Cal Grants, university grants and Middle Class Scholarships (if they are not eliminated as Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed). Parents making more than $60,000 would be expected to make a contribution, and students also would be expected to chip in by holding part-time jobs year-round.  Under the new plan, students still would have access to existing financial aid, including federal Pell Grants, state programs such as Cal Grants, university grants and Middle Class Scholarships (if they are not eliminated as Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed). Parents making more than $60,000 would be expected to make a contribution, and students also would be expected to chip in by holding part-time jobs year-round.  The new scholarship would cover the rest of the average annual cost of college, which is around $21,000 at Cal State and $33,000 at UC.

“It’s by far the most comprehensive and wide-reaching proposal in the country,” Lupita Cortez Alcalá, executive director of the California Student Aid Commission, told the Los Angeles Times. Other “free college” programs in Oregon and Tennessee and a proposal in New York cover only tuition and fees.  “This additional plan would really help close some of the gaps in the current financial aid,” Cortez Alcalá said.

A more radical (and costly) proposal, AB 1356, was introduced in March by Assembly member Susan Talamantes Eggman, joined by Rob Bonta and Shirley Weber.  It would create a 1 percent tax on Californians earning more than $1 million per year.  The Stockton Democrat said the tax would provide an estimated $2.2 billion each year — enough revenue to make public colleges tuition-free for residents.

“I see this as an investment in California’s overall future,” she said, adding that the measure will help middle-class families send their kids to college.  The bill requires a two-thirds vote in the Legislature because it would create a new tax. It would also be put on the ballot so voters can weigh in, Eggman said.

While falling short of the goal of insuring free tuition and a return to previous funding levels, as The $48 Fix would do, these proposals suggest that legislators are beginning to recognize the disaster that privatization, with its high-tuition, high-debt funding model, has wreaked on the state’s once-vaunted higher education system.  That’s something faculty members have known for years.  In March the Academic Senate of the California State University (ASCSU), the governance body representing over 25,00 faculty members at the system’s 23 campuses weighed in by approving a resolution, Saving Callfornia’s Higher Education Through Tax Reform, which endorsed the recommendations in The $48 Fix. 

The resolution reads:

SAVING CALIFORNIA’S MASTER PLAN THROUGH TAX REFORM

RESOLVED: That the Academic Senate of the California State University (ASCSU) endorse the recommendations in “The $48 Fix: Reclaiming California’s Master Plan for Higher Education,” a plan that lays out a strategy for making higher education free to eligible California residents through tax reform; and be it further

RESOLVED: That the ASCSU urge the leadership of the three segments of higher education, the governing boards thereof, their faculties, staff, students, and alumni to embark immediately upon an inter-segmental campaign to promote such a plan;

RESOLVED: That the ASCSU distribute this resolution to the CSU Board of Trustees, CSU Chancellor, CSU campus Presidents, CSU campus Senate Chairs, CSU campus Senate Executive Committees, CSU Provosts/Vice Presidents of Academic Affairs, CSU campus articulation officers, California Faculty Association (CFA), California State Student Association (CSSA), CSU Emeritus and Retired Faculty Association (CSUERFA), Academic Senate for the California Community Colleges, Academic Senate of the University of California, California Community Colleges’ Board of Governors, and the University of California Board of Regents.

RATIONALE: The erosion of funding for higher education in the state of California has nearly decimated the Master Plan of 1960, a plan that sought to guarantee that the public good would be permanently served by ensuring access to a virtually no-cost, high-quality college degree to all eligible Californians. The Master Plan’s original intent has been replaced by a system of tuition and fees that are increasingly to be borne by individuals and their families. At the same time, the state’s leaders in both government and business warn that the state will, in a few decades, suffer from a dearth of college-educated citizens—indeed, that the engine of the state’s prosperity could well be compromised because of what the Public Policy Institute of California has estimated will be over a million fewer college-educated people than what will be necessary to sustain prosperity in this state by the year 20302. Yet, the one sustainable way to ensure access to a university education, that is, regular, predictable public funding, has been replaced by too many short-term initiatives and cosmetic fixes to promote the production of degrees. “The $48 Fix: Reclaiming California’s Master Plan for Higher Education,” in contrast, lays out a number of scenarios for tax reform that would provide the necessary funding into the future. These scenarios, either individually or in combination, include a progressive income tax, Prop 13 reform, an oil severance tax, an estate tax, a re-purposing of Cal Grant funds, to permanently close the gap in public funding for the three segments of higher education. The allusion to a “$48 fix” refers to the amount of annual tax increase that would affect those who fall into the median of wage-earners in California: those with an adjusted gross income of just under $40,000 a year. Those with the ability to pay more would be asked to contribute more, as those who earn less would be taxed less. Someone with an adjusted gross income of between $90,000 and $99,000, for example, would pay about $378 per year toward ensuring a free university education for all eligible California residents.

The “$48 Fix” has been endorsed by the California Conference of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP); the California Faculty Association (CFA), the University of California Student Association, and a number of local unions. Outside California, there are indications that the possibility of a free college education for eligible students is gaining some political traction, as was recently the case in New York State when Governor Cuomo floated a similar proposal.

Such a plan suggests a sea-change in Californians’ thinking about higher education as a public good worth supporting through tax revenue — or, in fact, a return to the original promise of the Master Plan of 1960. The benefits could well be monumental, leaving the University of California (UC), CSU, and the California Community Colleges (CCC), freer to embark upon more meaningful and sustained efforts to improve access and equity in advancing their educational missions.

Approved – March 16-17, 2017

The City of San Francisco is not waiting for any of these proposals to ensure that city residents may attend community college for free. In February Mayor Ed Lee announced that the city would start setting aside $5.4 million per year to cover enrollment fees and other expenses for City College of San Francisco students, making it the first city in the nation to offer free tuition to residents. The college will use $2.1 million of that total each year to cover the cost of credit classes for California residents who have lived in San Francisco for at least a year.  At $46 per credit, the funding will cover around 45,000 credits.  The remaining $3.3 million in funding will go toward covering books, transportation, supplies and health fees for low-income students who have Board of Governors (BOG) tuition waivers.

The move follows former President Obama’s 2015 initiative for free community college.  Kentucky, Oregon, Tennessee and Minnesota already have last-dollar scholarship programs that cover any remaining tuition fees after state and federal grant aid, with varying eligibility requirements.  The plan announced by Mayor Lee, however, is different: It allows all residents to enroll, regardless of age, with no income eligibility requirements.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has proposed making all New York state, city and community colleges tuition-free for New York residents of households that earn less than $125,000 a year.  In Rhode Island, Gov. Gina Raimondo put forward a similar proposal: two years of free tuition at state colleges, with the benefit coming in the first two years for community college students and the last two for those at four-year institutions.  Like Mayor Lee, Raimondo put no income requirements on her plan.

All these proposals will face tough going, given the reluctance of most legislators, regardless of party, to raise taxes.  But there is motion in the right direction.  And in California, “the $48 fix” is now more than a fantasy; it’s becoming a movement.


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