A Serious Push for Free College in California

Put free college on the November ballot,” urges Estuardo Mazariegos to a student walking by. “Make California higher education free again, like it was in the 1970s.”

Mazariegos greets fellow students as they return from their holiday break to the Dominguez Hills campus of the California State University in Los Angeles, one of 23 state-university campuses in the sprawling state.

Across California, students have begun the formidable task of collecting over 585,407 signatures from registered voters to put their “College for All Act” on the ballot for this November. Inspired by Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign proposal to institute free higher education, these young activists are moving forward at the state level to make Bernie’s vision a reality.

“All of the revenue raised will go to making public community colleges and universities in California tuition-free and reducing the barriers to young people attending college,” said Mazariegos, who grew up in South Central Los Angeles, but now lives in the Crenshaw neighborhood.

Mazariegos understands the burden of paying for his education. He started college in 2006 and has attended on and off for financial reasons. Now in his last semester, he claims his annual tuition and fees are five times higher than then they were 11 years ago. He will graduate with $18,000 in debt.

“The bottom line of why it took me so long is I’ve had to work,” he said. “Right now I am working a full-time job while taking 15 credits. If the College for All act was in place, I wouldn’t have the stress of juggling full-time work and school. I would be able to integrate more into student life, study groups, and clubs and be more engaged—which is part of the value of college.”

Mazariegos is part of a student movement that will change the face of California higher education for future generations and the nation as a whole.

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The act would generate an estimated $4 billion a year in revenue. This revenue would go directly to funding free public college for the 2.6 million students at California’s community colleges and universities.

Funds would come from the reinstatement of the state’s estate tax, paid solely by the state’s multimillionaires and billionaires. The tax was eliminated in 2005. Interestingly, this was not because state voters or legislators decided to eliminate the tax, but rather resulted from the Bush tax cuts—for reasons that I’ll explain later.

Up until the 1970s, public higher education in California was virtually free. Hundreds of thousands of baby boomers benefitted from this opportunity, attending college for modest fees. These graduates went on to get jobs, purchase homes, save money, build wealth, raise families, pay taxes, and propel their lives forward without the crucible of huge amounts of college debt.