Monday, January 26, 2015

Affordable for All?

Last fall semester, I shared a bus ride from campus with a California State University Channel Islands student. I will call her Cora.

Cora is a bright young person from the San Fernando Valley with the dream of international travel before her pursuit of a post-baccalaureate degree to become a teacher.

After expressing her plans, her sanguine demeanor suddenly transformed to sadness. With one more year to go before she graduates, to date she has accumulated $30,000 in student loans.

As she considered how she would pay back this debt, her eyes welled up and she became silent. I was flummoxed. What could I say but encourage her to complete her schooling? A growing $30,000 debt is a daunting figure for virtually all, especially a first-generation university student.

Regrettably, in my use of public transit I occasionally overhear CI students approaching graduation commiserate about their debts that range in the tens of thousands of dollars. In fact, $30,000 is the national average.

The extreme cost of a public higher education in California is particularly unfathomable as my generation (the baby boom, born between 1946 and 1964) enjoyed virtually free college education opportunities. Indeed, in 1983, my first year at Moorpark College, there was no enrollment fee. It would not be until the next year that a fee was introduced. It entailed $50 (the equivalent of $114 today adjusted for inflation) for 12 or more semester units.

When I transferred to CSU Fresno two years later, my working-class parents paid $720 (adjusted for inflation $1,600) a year in fees.

In talking to mentors and colleagues who went to public universities during the 1960s, the deal was even sweeter. A composite of their stories goes like this:

"Frank, back when I was going to school at San Jose State, I paid $36 ($275 adjusted for inflation) a semester and worked a summer job at a utilities company that covered my fees, books and living expenses for the entire school year."

Today the price is $46 a unit or $552 for 12-plus semester units at a community college. For CSU students, the estimated fees and totals for an academic year (fall and spring terms) based on full-time enrollment (6.1 units or more per term) is $6,506. The 2014-2015 Estimated Cost of Attendance for Undergraduate & Transfer Students Living Off-Campus is $24,338.

Consequently, the likely total price for a CSU baccalaureate degree can be well over $100,000 since a majority of students take longer than four years to graduate.

I am not aware of a summer job currently that will significantly offset this expense.

Some elected officials and university administrators dismiss this problem by pointing out that a CSU education is a bargain comparable to other states. I am sure this is of great relief to parents with two or more children in or facing college, especially those with a household income that exceeds the ceiling to qualify for federal or state grants.

In the end, the pursuit of a higher education should not relegate students and their families to an intergenerational existence of a new form of debt peonage. So what is the solution?

A good start would be for Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature to restore the $1 billion in cuts to the CSU budget between 2008 and 2012. This would significantly lower the costs that parents and students face as well as open up room for a burgeoning demand for admission as the CSU rejected 30,000 applicants this past year.

Fortunately, some elected officials recognize the severity of this condition. In this regard, Asssemblymember Das Williams, D-Carpinteria, my representative in the Legislature, worked successfully with his colleagues to infuse $30 million in last year's budget for the Cal Grant and the Middle Class Scholarship programs. He also co-authored AB 1476, which passed the Legislature and would have appropriated $100 million of increased funding for the systems of the CSU and UC to split evenly. Unfortunately, Gov. Brown vetoed the bill.

The governor's veto is regrettable as it hamstrings California's economic recovery. College graduates who are relatively debt-free translate to them being more able to realize the dream of homeownership. This would stimulate a lethargic housing market and concomitant industries.

Furthermore, for every dollar the state invests in the CSU a multiplier effect of $5 is infused into California's overall economy.

So how do we make going to college truly affordable for all? A good start is for parents, grandparents, college students and all eligible to vote to contact the governor and their representatives in the Legislature demanding that they reinvest in public higher education so that college students like Cora can realize the California dream.

This essay was published in The Bakersfield Californian and Ventura County Star.

Con Safos