Saturday, February 13, 2016
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Napa Valley Register: Making college affordable again

By Michael Allen

California’s public universities and colleges used to be a bargain for middle-class parents and students.

In addition to their relatively low cost, our UC and CSU campuses have long been considered among the top academic institutions in the nation. They were the ultimate equalizers, enabling good students to attend world-class institutions even if their parents were not wealthy.

But thanks to the protracted national recession and chronic budget shortfalls, costs to attend these schools have risen dramatically over the past decade. Since the 2003-2004 school year, fees at California State University campuses have increased 191 percent; tuition at University of California campuses have increased by 145 percent, while fees for community college students have also gone up significantly.

While low-income students could still rely on Cal Grants and Pell Grants, the middle class was forced to bear the burden of these higher costs. Many families have been forced to turn to student loans to bridge the gap, often through out-of-state lenders. In other instances, these higher costs have served as a deterrent to students who have become convinced that, for them, higher education has become out of reach.

Given the importance of a college education, both to students who will one day enter the job market and to the businesses that will ultimately decide whether or not to hire them, we cannot afford for this trend to continue.

To keep college affordable for all Californians, I am writing legislation with Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez and other Democratic members of the state Assembly, to establish the Middle Class Scholarship Act, designed to make college tuition and fees more affordable for middle income families.

The cost of implementing the new Middle Class Scholarship program will be covered by closing a tax loophole that benefits large out-of-state corporations. By exploiting that loophole, which provides unfair tax advantages for companies with property and payroll outside California, they are depriving the state of about $1 billion a year in revenue.

The additional funds generated by closing that onerous loophole will be directed toward tuition and fee assistance. With the Middle Class Scholarship, CSU and UC students will fill out the standard financial aid forms. All students in the CSU and UC systems with family incomes less than $150,000 that do not already have fees covered will receive a Middle Class Scholarship that cuts their costs by two-thirds.

Under this proposal, for the CSU, approximately 150,000 students will receive the Middle Class Scholarship and save more than $4,000 per year. About 42,000 UC students will also receive the Middle Class Scholarship and save up to $8,169 per year. Further, Community Colleges will receive $150 million to expand affordability efforts.

If passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, the Middle Class Scholarship Act will ensure that students, graduates and families can keep more of their hard-earned cash and stay out of debt.

This win-win solution for California’s economy is on the horizon, but it needs your help to make it a reality. This effort will require a two-thirds vote of both houses of the Legislature, which means some Republican legislators will have to join Democrats in supporting the plan.

Investing in California’s students is an investment in our future. For every $1 we spend on higher education, the state gets a $3 return on its investment. All Californians, including those from middle class families, deserve access to an affordable college education.

Enacting the Middle Class Scholarship Act will take effort. But with enough persuasion from students, parents and all who depend on an educated workforce in California, it can become a reality.