California can be an annoyingly trendy state. Think avocado toast, In-N-Out Burger, Hollywood fashion, even legal pot.
But Californians are now in the vanguard to fix the serious problem of how to pay for public higher education.
Over 44 million house-holds in the U.S. are sad-dled with college debt — $37,000 on average. To-gether they owe over $1.4 trillion, surpassing credit card debt and auto loans.
In the 1970s, Califor-nia led the world with its famously accessible pub-lic universities and com-munity colleges. Millions of Californians received a virtually debt-free college education.
A friend of mine at-tended both undergradu-ate and grad school at the University of California in the 1970s and covered all of his tuition and expens-es by painting houses dur-ing two months of the summer.
That’s not possible anymore. Decades of tax cuts for the wealthy, state budget cuts, and rising tuition and fees have pushed costs much higher — and right onto students and their families.
The University of Cali-fornia-Berkeley (Photo: Mike Procario / Flickr)
Between 2011 and 2017, in-state tuition and fees at the University of California rose by nearly a quarter, from $10,940 to $13,509. Out-of-state costs grew to over $40,000.
San Francisco voters took a bold step in 2016 to push back on that trend.
They voted to tax luxu-ry real estate tax trans-fers, generating over $44 million a year from prop-erty sales over $5 million. The city allocated a por-tion of this revenue to provide free tuition and stipends to San Francisco Community College, boosting enrollment by 16 percent.
“I jumped at the chance,” said Cynthia Di-az, a San Francisco resi-dent studying early child-hood education. “I have less stress juggling work, family, and school.”
Diaz has joined an ef-fort to expand the concept beyond San Francisco. She’s collecting signatures for the California College for All initiative to expand college access for over 2.5 million California stu-dents.
If successful, the effort will generate an estimat-ed $4 billion a year to in-vest in public higher edu-cation — and greatly re-duce tuition and fees. Over 80 percent of the funds will be targeted to students based on need.
Funds will come from restoring a state inher-itance tax on Californians with wealth over $3.5 million and couples with over $7 million. These same households just got a massive tax cut at the federal level, as Congress voted to double the family wealth exempted by the federal estate tax from $11 million to $22 million.
At a time of extraordi-nary wealth inequality, taxing wealth to pay for higher education is a pow-erful idea. If the California initiative passes in No-vember, it will serve as a model to the nation for how to both reduce con-centrated wealth and ex-pand college opportunity.
It may sound radical. But the idea basically re-stores the formula for college access from the post-World War Two era. In the decades between 1945 and 1980, we taxed high incomes and wealth at much more progressive rates and invested in ex-panding public higher education.
Other states are ad-dressing this problem too.
Tennessee created the Tennessee Promise, a scholarship and mentor-ing program that provides two years of “last dollar” assistance to college stu-dents to fill any gap not provided by Pell Grants. In Michigan, a group of anonymous donors start-ed the Kalamazoo Prom-ise, guaranteeing free tui-tion to students who grad-uate from that city’s high schools.
Other states, such as New York and Massachu-setts, are moving toward free community college.
But the California solu-tion would be the most comprehensive initiative yet, covering millions more students at all levels of the public education system.
That’s the best idea since beach volleyball and Mickey Mouse.
Chuck Collins, the Insti-tute for Policy Studies.
A California trend worth catching: college for everyone