Influencers Opinion

College costs saddle many students with large debts. That needs to change

Why California students need debt-free college

Monique Graham, a fourth-year communication and dance major at Sacramento State, is $40,000 in debt from student loans. She explains how one proposal by Assembly Democrats' would help her.
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Monique Graham, a fourth-year communication and dance major at Sacramento State, is $40,000 in debt from student loans. She explains how one proposal by Assembly Democrats' would help her.

Note to readers: Each week through November 2019, a selection of our 101 California Influencers answers a question that is critical to California’s future. Topics include education, healthcare, environment, housing and economic growth.

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In the movies, college is about football games and fraternity parties, all-nighters in the library and espresso-fueled bull sessions about the meaning of life. But in the real world, higher education is much less glamorous.

For many students, it means scheduling their classes around full-time jobs. For others, it can mean food instability and homelessness. And those who do earn a diploma are also likely to take with them an invoice for tens of thousands of dollars in student debt.

“The biggest barriers to enrolling in college are cost and the need to work full-time,” said California Community College Chancellor Eloy Oakley, one of several of the California education influencers who called for the state to significantly increase student financial aid. “Getting college affordability right is a challenge California must address to improve social and economic mobility for all who live here.”

California Charter Schools Association President Myrna Castrejon was less diplomatic.

“At a moment when we have historically high numbers of underserved students filling the hallways of California’s colleges, it is downright immoral that we are saddling them with unsustainable student debt,” she said.

Children Now President Ted Lempert offered the most dramatic proposal for enhanced financial support, by essentially abolishing tuition at the state’s public colleges and universities.

“The California Legislature just approved a $214.8 billion state budget. It would take just 5 percent of that budget to completely eliminate tuition and fees at the UC, CSU and community colleges,” said Lempert. “Need-based financial aid could then be directed to non-tuition costs, such as housing, food, and transportation, which are typically unaccounted for in most… financial aid programs.”

Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the California State Board of Education, advocated for increased aid as an incentive to encourage students toward specific types of careers, citing Gov. Gavin Newsom’s plan to provide grants for students willing to teach in high-need fields such as special education, science and technology and bilingual education.

“This won’t solve the shortage completely – more needs to be done to help struggling schools and districts attract and retain teachers,” Darling-Hammond said. “But by recognizing that college debt load is a barrier to entering public service, Governor Newsom made an important first step.”

Democratic strategist Roger Salazar pointed to the increased need among students who attend the state’s private schools.

“With California’s UC/CSU system over capacity, California’s students are more and more likely to (choose) an independent college or university,” Salazar said. “All California students deserve the equivalent amount of support, irrespective of whether they attend a public or private university.”

College Futures Foundation President Monica Lozano also stressed the importance of cost stability, especially for students from economically challenged families.

“In good economic times, we see increases in state appropriations and tuition freezes. In bad times, budgets are balanced by increasing tuition while slashing resources and services,” said Lozano, who recommended the adoption of multiyear higher education budgets and tuition levels. “We expect families to set budgets, save money, and plan for the future. Yet California doesn’t have a realistic, long-term finance plan for higher education, and our lowest-income families bear the consequences.”

Other influencers outlined possible reforms that would reduce higher education costs.

“We need to focus on real reforms to lower the cost of education; we can’t subsidize our way out of this problem,” said state Sen. Ling Ling Chang (R-Diamond Bar). “We can begin by finding ways to reduce the overhead at universities. At many colleges and universities, administration has grown much faster than student enrollment… as a result the cost of attending college has grown in price way past the rate of inflation.”

Christine Robertson, executive director of the San Luis Coastal Education Foundation, called for the use of technology-based learning to complement the traditional classroom-based approach.

“By reimagining our educational models to include technology-enabled flexible learning environments, we increase access and decrease cost,” she said. “Augmenting campus-base instruction with virtual classrooms can expand access and reduce cost. Pairing traditional instruction with personalized and self-paced learning platforms can enhance student choice and accelerate learning.”

Kim Belshe, executive director for First 5 LA, provided a necessary reminder that higher education costs must be viewed in a broader context.

“The first thing I’d do is be honest with Californians about the real costs and consequences of our children’s education experience – from cradle to career,” Belshe said. “We have to shift our thinking regarding when learning begins for children and start earlier so kids finish strong and are prepared to compete for good-paying jobs in a dynamic economy.”

Dan Schnur, a veteran analyst and longtime participant in California politics, is director of the California Influencers series for McClatchy.
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