National Beat Reporter
A new ballot initiative seeks to give California voters the opportunity to weigh in on free higher education this November.
The College for All Act is currently in the process of gathering 585,407 signatures in order to become a ballot measure. This act aims to cover the cost of public higher education for all Californian residents.
The ballot initiative proposes a renewed state estate tax geared at estates worth $3.5 million or more, which it claimed “will generate billions of additional dollars to support access to higher education.”
Additionally, according to the College for All website, the act will raise about $4 billion in new revenues “dedicated entirely to student aid,” increases the maximum Cal Grant living expense aid for working class students by 80 percent, and expands Cal Grant eligibility to more than 330,000 students.
Andrew Johnson, Ph.D candidate in political science at UCSB and a volunteer for College for All, stated that their goal is to make CA live up to the original promise of free higher education set out in the CA Master Plan in 1960.
Johnson added that if the ballot measure were to pass, billions of dollars in tuition would be covered for CA residents to attend University of California schools, California State University schools, and CA community colleges.
“The initiative pays for itself by a tax on the wealthy and its primary benefit is meant to go towards the students on the lowest economic bracket,” Johnson said.
Jonathan Abboud, the vice president of the board of trustees at Santa Barbara City College, expressed criticism towards the act and stated that it will not be able to mathematically make tuition free for all.
Abboud cited the calculations laid out by the “$48 Fix” that showed tuition revenue from CSUs, UCs, and CCs all added up to $4.72 billion, “College for All at maximum raises $4 billion,” Abboud said.
Abboud also proposed the “$48 Fix,” as an alternative. The plan will impose an annual state income tax of $48 to eliminate tuition in public higher education. That initiative currently has the support of the UCSB Associated Students Senate.
Furthermore, Abboud asserted that the $4 billion dollars the act claims to raise is exaggerated. Abboud cited a study from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities that projects $1.7 billion dollars in revenue being raised by exempting $1 million from estates. A $3.5 million exemption is projected to raise just about $1 billion.
In response to these criticisms, Johnson cited a baseline estimate based on 2015 tax data that displayed $3.2 billion in revenue being raised by taxing CA individual estates over $3 million with a top marginal tax rate of 22 percent.
Johnson also claimed that while there may be other initiatives in CA to get free higher education, College for All is the only one actively trying to get on the ballot. Organizing students and individuals associated with higher education to get behind free tuition as a ballot initiative is what really matters, so it can be voted on.
“So far there are efforts underway at all University of California colleges,” Johnson said about getting the act on the November ballot. He also added that they have until late April to gather all the signatures and still need more support from student organizations and students in general.
Another point of criticism Abboud had for the act was its priorities of funding. Abboud stated that while looking at the initiative’s text, one can see that the first tier of funding will all go for the expansion of Cal Grant B for full time community college students. “That is estimated to take up all of the funding,” Abboud claimed.
Abboud asserted that the act will merely provide more financial aid to students and will not actually make tuition free for CA college students.
“They are lying to the voters,” Abboud said.
Johnson, in response to the alleged deception, affirmed that the purpose of the act is to provide aid that pays for tuition.
“[It] provides non-tuition assistance to those low-income students who already have free tuition, but it provides billions of dollars directly for tuition payments,” Johnson said.
Subsequently, Abboud said that the act has the potential to derail the movement to make public higher education more affordable for CA students as voters may prove more hesitant to back future initiatives due to College for All’s failure to live up to its promises.
Johnson conceded that the act does have its shortcomings in terms of dealing with all the issues that contribute to high tuition. But it’s a start.
“By no means is the act going to solve all the problems in the University of California system,” Johnson said. “University students and grad students are going to have to continue to organize to address those problems.”
This article has been updated with quotes from Johnson.