A Serious Push for Free College in California

A Serious Push for Free College in California

A Serious Push for Free College in California

A ballot initiative campaign to restore tuition-free college in California is gaining momentum for the November election, a model other states could follow.


Put free college on the November ballot,” urges Estuardo Mazariegos to a student walking by. “Make California higher education free again, like it was in the 1970s.”

Mazariegos greets fellow students as they return from their holiday break to the Dominguez Hills campus of the California State University in Los Angeles, one of 23 state-university campuses in the sprawling state.

Across California, students have begun the formidable task of collecting over 585,407 signatures from registered voters to put their “College for All Act” on the ballot for this November. Inspired by Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign proposal to institute free higher education, these young activists are moving forward at the state level to make Bernie’s vision a reality.

“All of the revenue raised will go to making public community colleges and universities in California tuition-free and reducing the barriers to young people attending college,” said Mazariegos, who grew up in South Central Los Angeles, but now lives in the Crenshaw neighborhood.

Mazariegos understands the burden of paying for his education. He started college in 2006 and has attended on and off for financial reasons. Now in his last semester, he claims his annual tuition and fees are five times higher than then they were 11 years ago. He will graduate with $18,000 in debt.

“The bottom line of why it took me so long is I’ve had to work,” he said. “Right now I am working a full-time job while taking 15 credits. If the College for All act was in place, I wouldn’t have the stress of juggling full-time work and school. I would be able to integrate more into student life, study groups, and clubs and be more engaged—which is part of the value of college.”

Mazariegos is part of a student movement that will change the face of California higher education for future generations and the nation as a whole.

The act would generate an estimated $4 billion a year in revenue. This revenue would go directly to funding free public college for the 2.6 million students at California’s community colleges and universities.

Funds would come from the reinstatement of the state’s estate tax, paid solely by the state’s multimillionaires and billionaires. The tax was eliminated in 2005. Interestingly, this was not because state voters or legislators decided to eliminate the tax, but rather resulted from the Bush tax cuts—for reasons that I’ll explain later.

Up until the 1970s, public higher education in California was virtually free. Hundreds of thousands of baby boomers benefitted from this opportunity, attending college for modest fees. These graduates went on to get jobs, purchase homes, save money, build wealth, raise families, pay taxes, and propel their lives forward without the crucible of huge amounts of college debt.

But several decades of regressive tax cuts and subsequent budget cuts have led to tuition increases that have shifted the cost of college onto students and their parents. Since 1992, the cost of college has gone up over 300 percent in California. In 2012, tuition surpassed the state’s contribution toward core operating funds at the University of California, with students paying nearly $3 billion in tuition and fees while the state contributed $2.38 billion. In other words, costs shifted directly from the public sector to students.

Students that are still able to attend college are burdened with tens of thousands of dollars in debt. Nationally, over 44 million borrowers are holding student debt totaling over $1.4 trillion, surpassing credit-card debt and auto loans. Average student debt for 2016’s graduating class exceeded $37,000.

Student debt serves no positive social purpose unless you are a predatory financial lender. Many indebted graduates begin their work lives with stressed-out financial situations and damaged credit histories. Students with debt delay forming families and purchasing homes, and save less for retirement over their work lives. They are less inclined to take lower-salaried public-interest work or engage in entrepreneurship.

The shift from education as a public good to a private burden has a defined racial component. “The California system was amazing when most of the beneficiaries were white,” said Mazariegos. “Now that we are a majority-minority state, the spending cuts have come down. This is why college access is a social-justice and racial-justice issue.”

“It is past time we think about free college in California,” said Varsha Sarveshwar, a second-year student at the University of California at Berkeley and leader in student government. “I see my classmates working two part-time jobs to pay the rent. One in five students experience housing insecurity and half experience food insecurity. It’s hard to focus on school if you are hungry or being evicted.”

Sarveshwar believes the tax on inherited wealth is a fair way to fund free college. “Californians pride ourselves on having a progressive tax system,” she said. “So paying for college access with an estate tax on the wealthiest people in the state is in line with this vision.”

The funding mechanism, California’s estate tax, was phased out in 2005 when changes to the federal tax code passed by Congress eliminated the state’s ability to piggyback on the federal estate-tax law. The estate tax, a levy on the intergenerational transfer of immense wealth, remains one of the most progressive ways to generate revenue available to states.

Other states took action to restore their state estate taxes in the wake of the federal action. Washington State, for example, kept its estate tax and linked the revenue to an Education Legacy Trust Fund that invests in both public higher education and K-12.

California lost an estimated $16 billion over the last dozen years as a result of their failure to act in 2005 to retain their state inheritance tax. These funds could have greatly reduced college costs and eliminated a tremendous amount of unnecessary financial hardship for current student debtors.

The California College for All act would restore the state estate tax on individuals with assets over $3.5 million, or $7 million for couples. The graduated rates would range from 12 percent on estates between $3.5 million and $4 million to 22 percent on estates over $5.49 million.

The Republican majority in Congress, with cheering from President Trump, just gave this group of multimillionaires and billionaires a massive tax break. In the tax bill passed in December, wealth exempted by the federal estate tax was doubled until 2026, from $11 million for a couple to over $22 million. That means the first $22 million transferred to the next generations of heirs and heiresses will be completely tax-free under current law. Most of these assets have never been taxed before, the result of loopholes in the existing tax code designed for crafty accountants and estate planners to exploit for their ultra-wealthy clients.

The California initiative would capture a portion of this untaxed wealth and direct it to free college. Only the richest 0.2 percent of Californians, about 4,000 multimillionaires and billionaires, will pay the tax, while 2.6 million students will benefit from the college for all system.

“This issue of free college will mobilize young voters and boost turnout for 2018,” said Angad Singh Bhalla, a coordinator of the California College for All campaign. “By putting something bold and exciting on the ballot, we will pull young people out and have all sorts of impacts.”

“One lesson from the 2016 campaign is you can only go so far saying our opponent is a monster,” said Bhalla. “You need to have a compelling progressive vision.”

“By restoring the California estate tax, we are capturing lost revenue and directing it to something that changes lives in our state,” said Bhalla. “The estate tax is a fundamentally fair tax. Why should someone be born with so much unlimited wealth at a time when social opportunity is declining for the large masses of people?”

The coalition has secured the ballot language from the state attorney general, available on the campaign website, and is now getting to work collecting signatures, raising funds, and gathering volunteers. They need people to get involved quickly as the deadline for signature collection in April is fast approaching.

“If we are able to get on the ballot, I think we will triumph,” said Bhalla. “But we have to get on the ballot. We don’t have any billionaire funders, like most California initiatives. Not yet anyway.”

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
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