Back When Col­lege Was Debt-Free

Washington County Enterprise-Leader - - OPINION - Josh Hoxie Columnist

The last col­lege grad cer­e­monies are wrap­ping up and the last par­ties are com­ing to a close. Now the job hunt for re­cent grads be­gins in earnest — with the looming specter of stu­dent loan pay­ments draw­ing ever closer.

To­day’s av­er­age stu­dent debt is around $37,000. But in Amer­ica’s largest state, it wasn’t that long ago that any stu­dent could get a world­class, debt-free ed­u­ca­tion — re­gard­less of their eco­nomic back­ground.

That state was Cal­i­for­nia, and Gail Leon­dar-Wright was one of those stu­dents.

Gail came from a mid­dle­class fam­ily — her dad was an en­gi­neer and her mom a stayat-home par­ent. She at­tended UC Berke­ley from 1976 to 1980, grad­u­at­ing with a bach­e­lor’s de­gree in the­ater. At the time, the elite pub­lic school was tu­ition-free and re­quired a mere $600 per year in fees, or just un­der $1,400 in to­day’s dol­lars.

Af­ter grad­u­at­ing, she got her mas­ter’s, spent 10 years work­ing in the­ater, and then launched a suc­cess­ful pub­lic re­la­tions firm still in op­er­a­tion to­day.

“I had one job — just go to school and get good grades,” she re­calls. “If I’d had to work through­out school or grad­u­ated with a ton of debt, I’d never have been able to start a busi­ness or take a risk work­ing in a low-wage field like the­ater.”

“There’s no rea­son to­day’s gen­er­a­tion shouldn’t have the same op­por­tu­ni­ties my gen­er­a­tion had, Gail says.” But they don’t.

Just ask Erika Jimenez. She stud­ied po­lit­i­cal sci­ence at Cal­i­for­nia State Uni­ver­sity, East Bay and grad­u­ated last year. Tu­ition and fees were $6,840 per year by the time she grad­u­ated — not in­clud­ing room, board, books, and many in­ci­den­tals.

Un­like Gail, Erika worked through school, first in re­tail and then for the school’s teach­ers’ union. Still, Erika grad­u­ated with $27,000 in stu­dent debt. A bill now shows up ev­ery month in her in­box for $283.95.

She moved back in with her folks af­ter grad­u­at­ing and picked up a job as a mini bar at­ten­dant at a lo­cal ho­tel — a far cry from her dream of work­ing for a non­profit.

“I watched stu­dents strug­gle with fi­nan­cial aid the whole time I was in school and af­ter,” Erika said. “Stu­dents are think­ing about food, rent, books, and tu­ition while they should be think­ing about class and home­work and ed­u­ca­tion.”

Erika and Gail’s sto­ries are two strik­ing ex­am­ples of the dis­par­ity be­tween baby boomers and to­day’s gen­er­a­tion. A new re­port I co-au­thored for the In­sti­tute for Pol­icy Stud­ies, called Restor­ing Op­por­tu­nity: Tax­ing Wealth to Fund Higher Ed­u­ca­tion in Cal­i­for­nia, high­lights these sto­ries.

The re­port points out that the sky­rock­et­ing cost of at­tend­ing pub­lic col­leges in Cal­i­for­nia, up 70 per­cent af­ter in­fla­tion from 2003 to 2016, tracks neatly with the elim­i­na­tion of the state es­tate tax in Cal­i­for­nia, which re­sulted in $18 bil­lion in lost rev­enue. The re­sult has been a big in­crease in the bur­den faced by Cal­i­for­nia fam­i­lies.

In­spired by Bernie San­ders, the Cal­i­for­nia Col­lege for All Coali­tion pro­poses restor­ing debt-free higher ed­u­ca­tion in Cal­i­for­nia by restor­ing the state es­tate tax. By tax­ing the es­tates of the few thou­sand multi-mil­lion­aires and bil­lion­aires in Cal­i­for­nia, they es­ti­mate they could raise $4 bil­lion a year to ex­pand col­lege ac­cess.

Their plan could pass through the state leg­is­la­ture or on the 2020 bal­lot, they hope.

Col­lege for All would re­cy­cle op­por­tu­nity for the ris­ing gen­er­a­tion by ask­ing the heirs of mas­sive for­tunes to chip in. It’s a model that could also help mil­lions of stu­dents in other states like Michi­gan, Ohio, and Florida. JOSH HOXIE DI­RECTS THE TAX­A­TION AND OP­POR­TU­NITY PROJECT AT THE IN­STI­TUTE FOR POL­ICY STUD­IES. DIS­TRIB­UTED BY OTHERWORDS.ORG. THE OPIN­IONS EX­PRESSED ARE THOSE OF THE AU­THOR.

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