California's Plan to Eliminate Student Debt

Public-university and community-college students could benefit from a new financial-aid package.

A white, stone building on the University of California, Berkeley, campus
The University of California, Berkeley (Eric Risberg / AP)

While a national policy on higher education has yet to be decided, it’s clear where California stands. On Monday, the state’s Democrats released a financial-aid plan that covers both tuition and living expenses, with the end goal of eliminating student loans among 400,000 students enrolled in the University of California and California State systems.

In a statewide survey conducted last year, nearly three-quarters of Californians identified college costs as a major barrier to higher education. Another 82 percent expressed support for additional scholarships and grants.

The proposed plan satisfies this desire by providing grants to community-college students and subsidizing their first year’s tuition. In addition, all college students will retain access to Cal Grants, federal Pell Grants, university grants, and Middle Class Scholarships. With this additional aid, lawmakers say they hope students will have enough funding to cover the cost of textbooks, transportation, and overall living, which make up the bulk of attendance costs at UC institutions.

Although students are expected to contribute by working part-time, the proposed scholarship takes care of the average cost of tuition: around $21,000 a year at Cal State schools and $33,000 a year at UC schools. Parents who earn over $60,000 annually are expected to help with their child’s education.

Overall, the plan offers students around $1.6 billion in annual aid, with scholarships being released in phases over the next five years. In a statement to The Los Angeles Times, Lupita Cortez Alcalá, the executive director of the California Student Aid Commission, called it “by far the most comprehensive and wide-reaching proposal in the country.”

Critics say they fear the plan would fail to aid students who need it the most—namely, those at community colleges. “In many regions across the state, community-college students face higher college costs than UC or CSU students,” Debbie Cochrane, the vice president at the Institute for College Access and Success, told The Los Angeles Times.

In addition to these concerns, there’s still the issue of getting the plan past budget negotiations with Governor Jerry Brown, a Democrat. As it stands, most of the plan’s funding would come from California’s general fund, with the expectation that the state’s tax revenues will come in higher than projected. But whether the proposal will end up in California’s final budget plan in June is unclear, especially given Brown’s cautious spending record.

Despite these obstacles, eliminating college debt remains a priority for many Democrats, who will likely have more success realizing this goal in California than they will on a national scale.