California weighs pros, cons of debt-free college for students

 After San Francisco announced that it would make community colleges free to residents of the city, California has begun seriously considering the possibility of debt-free college education for students.

The Legislative Analyst’s Office, or LAO, released a report in January exploring a potential design and implementation of a debt-free college program in California. According to the report, the cost of such a program amounts to approximately $3.3 billion, with $2.2 billion allocated to community college students, $800 million to CSU students and $300 million for UC students.

Data analyzed by the UC Office of the President shows that students at UC schools graduate with less debt than at other public and private four-year universities.

“UC currently provides financial scholarships that completely cover the cost of tuition and fees for 57 percent of our California undergraduates, and an additional 20 percent have part of those costs taken care of,” said UCOP spokesperson Claire Doan in an email.

The LAO report encourages implementing the debt-free program through the idea of “shared responsibility,” when a student’s cost of education is split between parental contributions, student contributions and gift aid. If financial need is still not met after these contributions, the state will provide the rest in “last dollar” gift aid. The report acknowledges, however, that shared responsibility —  while likely to lower student debt —  is not guaranteed to eliminate it.

To help make grants more accessible and understandable to students, the report recommends consolidating existing grant programs into one, although the shift could drastically change the way that public financial aid is distributed in California. In addition, the report suggests instituting an academic achievement requirement — typically a GPA requirement — as an incentive for students to continue with their studies and keep their aid.

San Francisco’s free college plan draws funding by taxing properties that sell for more than $5 million —  a measure that was approved by voters in November. The program also sets aside funds for low-income students as a way to encourage them to pursue their education.

According to ASUC Senator Anthony Carrasco, critics of the free college plan have cited higher taxes and abundance of college degrees as reasons to oppose the initiative. Carrasco said he disagreed with this idea, stating that taxes “can’t be demonized” for being large if they “provide a public good.” Carrasco also said he believes that education is crucial for a community’s growth and profit, emphasizing that education is “not a zero-sum game.”

“Fundamentally, I hold that education is a public good, and part of that is being readily accessible to all members of civil society,” Carrasco said. “When educational opportunities are more evenly distributed, society thrives at a higher level.”

BY Revati Thatte