If Politicians Won't Step Up To Lead the Fight For Free College Tuition, Students Will.

Across the country, states like New York, Oregon, Rhode Island and Tennessee are eliminating college tuition to help more students earn a higher education. But in California, despite a flurry of recent proposals, policymakers are hiking tuition after cutting higher education funding for decades. The result is a system that’s leaving tens of thousands of students hungry and homeless, and simultaneously sending a message to countless high school students that they don’t belong in college because of the cost. That’s why thousands of students are coming together this school year to launch Rise California. Rise is a student-led organization fighting for free college tuition and protections from student debt in the Golden State. California was once a national leader in providing affordable public higher education, enabling generations of students to pursue their dreams. Today, our colleges and universities are strong — empowering students with knowledge and skills and even helping families rise out of poverty — but funding cuts and rising tuition costs have made it harder for current students to graduate. Even more troubling, the sky-high sticker price of college tuition is discouraging talented and hardworking high school students from pursuing college at all.

If politicians won’t step up to lead the fight for free college tuition, students will.

Dani Carrancho, who serves on Rise’s student leadership council, is starting her sixth (and final) year at California State University Long Beach. Dani’s mom also attended California State University (CSU), but today Dani pays nearly 400 percent more than her mother did to earn the same degree. That’s in large part because California has cut per student funding in the CSU system by more than 40 percent since 1980. As a result, Dani has had to juggle multiple jobs and skip meals to save for school — and still could not afford to take enough credits to graduate on time.

Do we really want to live in a world that makes earning an education more difficult for students than it was for their parents?

[pullquote position="left"]At Rise, we believe that no student should have to choose between their next meal and their education. That’s why we’re not only focused on free tuition. We also believe California must do a better job of helping students cover the additional costs of college such as housing and transportation, so they can focus on what really counts: learning. Over the last few months, our coalition has grown to more than 2,500 students (and counting), and we have established our policy platform to reinvest in higher education:
  1. Eliminate college tuition to expand access to public, higher education.
  2. Protect students from debt by helping cover additional costs of college.
  3. Invest in colleges and universities so they can graduate more students.
To restore the promise of public higher education in California, we need public policies that address all three of these areas so that students can access, afford and complete their degrees.

Free college tuition isn’t just the right thing to do for students. It’s essential for our economy.

Despite having the world’s sixth largest economy, California ranks 47th out of 50 states in our share of high school graduates that we send to four-year colleges. That ranking has significant consequences for California’s entrepreneurs and business leaders. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, we “will fall one million college graduates short of economic demand by 2025 unless enrollment and graduation rates improve substantially.” Earning a bachelor’s degree adds, on average, $1 million in additional lifetime earnings, so California’s low standing also represents billions of dollars in opportunity cost, lost tax revenue and, most importantly, unrealized human potential. We know that a free tuition program will help more students in California succeed because we’ve already seen success in states leading on this issue. In deep-red Tennessee, a statewide program for community college students boosted first-time enrollment in public higher education by 13 percent and decreased the number of students taking out loans by 17 percent. There are some folks who say free college tuition is too radical, or too expensive, to become a reality any time soon. But California’s nonpartisan legislative office projected a multi-billion dollar budget surplus this year. And just a few months ago, California legislators approved a transportation bill that’s slated to cost $5.2 billion per year for the next decade. That’s more than twice what it would cost to eliminate tuition and fees for every student in California, according to a recent proposal. We know that we have the resources and the demand to bring free college tuition to California. So what is Rise going to do about it?

In the months ahead, we’re amplifying student voices to make free college tuition the top policy issue in California.

That means equipping students with the tools they need to tell their stories and organize their campuses. It means calling on candidates to present — or endorse — plans to reinvest in students. And it means getting out the student vote in next year’s primary and general elections, so that lawmakers are accountable to the students shaping the future of our state. Together, we are creating a California where financial barriers never stop a student from earning a college degree, and students have a stronger voice in how decisions about public policy are made. Our campaign is not a pet project of lobbyists or special interest groups. We are accountable only to our student supporters and we are building this movement from scratch: one student, one campus, and one supporter at a time. That means we have the freedom to be independent, but it also means we need your help to be successful. If you want to be a part of building a brighter future for California’s students:
  1. Like us on Facebook, and follow us on Instagram and Twitter.
  2. Sign up on our website — www.CARise.org — to learn more, donate, and register to vote.
  3. Email me directly at Max@CARise.org to collaborate.
If you believe that students deserve better opportunities than their parents’ generation, I hope you will join our movement for free college tuition. Your support will empower more students to the lead the fight to reinvest in public higher education in California. If lawmakers and politicians won’t do it, students will.
An original version of this post appeared on Medium as Why California Students are Leading the Fight for Free College Tuition.
Maxwell Lubin is the CEO of Rise, Inc., a graduate student at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley, and a former Obama administration appointee at the U.S. Department of Education. At the U.S. Department of Education, Max helped shape more than $1 billion in annual investments in innovative schools, nonprofit organizations and institutions of higher ...

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