For years, free college tuition has been nothing more than a platitude enthusiastically repeated by liberal politicians at political rallies. This year, assembly member Susan Talamantes Eggman changed that. Her recently proposed bill, AB 1356, could turn free tuition for California residents from a pipe dream into a reality.
As college costs skyrocket, more and more students are being forced to trade financial security for their educational aspirations. According to recent data, 68 percent of students graduating public and nonprofit universities in 2015 had student debt. With a whopping average debt of $30,100 per borrower, students nowadays enter the workforce already straddled with enormous financial burden.
Dire situations require drastic action, and with Eggman’s recently proposed bill, the California legislature is finally considering it. While not perfect, this proposal to make tuition for all public colleges in California free for in-state residents is certainly a step in the right direction. But in order to be truly robust, it needs a mechanism to allow the state’s allotment to increase in tandem with rising university costs.
Unlike many bills before, Eggman’s proposal does not rest on the assumption that the state will suddenly find an extra couple billion dollars lying around. Instead, it outlines a clear and direct mechanism for raising the needed funds. If passed, AB 1356 would raise taxes by one percent on Californian households earning more than $1 million a year, raising the income tax rate for top earners from 13.3 percent to 14.3 percent. This increase would provide approximately $2.2 billion in new revenue for the state. When existing aid programs are factored in, this money would completely cover the costs of making all California public colleges tuition-free for all in-state students.
Furthermore, according to Eggman’s spokesperson, Christian Burkin, the bill would impose no budget cuts on any university, and thus would have no effect on the quality of educational services rendered.
This bill certainly faces some political hurdles. After surviving confirmation by a two-thirds majority in the state legislature, it would have to score a majority vote among the general public as a California ballot measure.
To that end, a bit of tweaking can not only help the bill survive the political process, but also make the plan more sustainable. Most significantly, state funding needs to keep pace with tuition rises. That is to say, while $2 billion in revenue may be enough to cover in-state tuition now, ever-increasing costs associated with higher education and the state government’s commitment to enroll ever-more California resident students could leave the government on the hook for more than the current allotted funding down the road.
With no mechanism to fund this increase, the state government risks jeopardizing the quality of California’s public higher education systems. In order to alleviate these risks, the final bill should have mechanisms in place for revisiting and tweaking revenue streams so that state funding can keep up with increases in tuition.
Despite its flaws, AB 1356 is not a moon shot, and it must be passed. This bill provides an actual, feasible plan for increasing college affordability, something that the state government has been attempting to do for years. With this bill, the state government can finally take effective action to combat one of the biggest problems of this generation. As college degrees have become more a necessity than a luxury, prices have risen dramatically. This bill would make tremendous strides toward removing low- and middle-class students’ barriers to higher education. It would allow these students to get the education they need to make a contribution to society and a decent living without straddling themselves with crippling amounts of debt.
This bill’s passage would be a welcome breath of fresh air to higher education, for which costs are out of control, and allow California to pioneer affordable higher education, echoing our long tradition of being a vanguard in public access to higher education.
And sure, opponents of the bill assert that an increase in taxes on high-income earners, which is the bill’s source of revenue, may not be a sustainable way to fund this program. Republican legislators and several publications alike have argued that in the face of increasingly higher income tax rates, wealthy individuals would simply pack up and flee to cheaper neighboring states such as Arizona, where the top income tax rate is a measly 4.5 percent. Such an exodus would theoretically leave this bill without the support necessary to carry out its lofty goals.
However, this is a tired argument that just doesn’t have teeth. Opponents of increases such as those proposed in AB 1356 have evoked this mantra for years. Yet, time and time again it has been proven demonstrably false. Despite one of the highest tax rates in the top income bracket and various increases in this rate over the years, there has been no mass millionaire exodus from California.
Burkin bluntly states, “More middle class families are moving out, whereas more wealthy people are moving in. California is a great place for the wealthy right now.”
Ultimately, California is moving in the right direction on college affordability. Crippling higher education costs are one of the most significant problems our generation must grapple with. Although it has issues, this legislation takes significant and needed steps toward making sure our citizens are prepared to contribute to the economy and lead financially secure lives. The passage of this bill would give generations of students a real shot at the elusive American dream.