Can the UC be Free?

The fight for free tuition in California

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Illustration by Darin Connolly

Graduation is just around the corner, and the class of 2019 will soon be leaving UC Santa Cruz with memories, a diploma and over $22,000 of student debt each.

Students in California are working to alleviate this debt by campaigning for free tuition. If successful, they would restore the UC to the free public good it once was.

UC tuition in 1985 was only $1,296 compared to the current $13,900 per year. After adjusting for inflation, tuition is still four times as expensive as it was 34 years ago. In opposition to these steady increases, students across California have been lobbying for new legislation and equitable education.

In 2017, under pressure from student lobbyists, Gov. Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 19 into law, easing the financial burden of low-income students attending community colleges in California. This year, politicians are considering three more bills that will further aid students at community colleges if passed — Senate Bill 291, AB 2 and AB 542.

Guaranteed funding for both tuition and additional costs would be monumental for students at California Community Colleges (CCC). If these bills pass, it would also provide a precedent for analogous campaigns seeking state subsidized tuition for CSUs and UCs.

UCSC Advocacy

Like other universities in California, UCSC has its own team of students lobbying on behalf of the campus community. 

Student Union Assembly’s (SUA) external office represents students in state and nationwide issues. Legislative director for the SUA External Vice President’s Office James Goldwyn said its mission is to make student voices heard by lawmakers.

“[The university] is not equitable. It’s not this public service, this public good. Education at a UC […] is not a level playing field,” Goldwyn said. “If there’s one goal that the vice president’s office has […] it’s to level the playing field. It’s to bring folks into these spaces. We really try to make advocacy available to absolutely everyone.”

Goldwyn also acknowledged that the recent and upcoming victories for community colleges have the potential to translate into more support for CSUs and UCs. Students who campaign for these bills can use those skills to push for similar measures on their campuses.

Last year, over half of UCSC graduates left the university with student debt. To pay the loans off immediately after graduation, students would have had to work 25 hours a week for two of the years they were in school, an unrealistic expectation for full-time students. Free tuition would help students focus on their performance in school instead of how they plan to pay for it.

Beyond Santa Cruz

Another player in the movement for free tuition is Rise, a student-led, nonprofit organization founded in response to budget cuts to higher education in several states. Rise is working toward the goal of free education through incremental victories, such as when campaigners stopped UC and CSU tuition hikes in 2018.

Rise raises awareness of the financial struggles students face through sharing their stories on social media. It also partners with student groups at CCCs, CSUs and UCs to support their advocacy efforts and get more people involved with campaigning.

“Money should never hold back or determine a student’s success in college or beyond,” said Rise CEO Max Lubin. “For us, free public higher education is about recognizing our commitment to the idea that we as individuals and our whole society would be better off if all of us knew that we can pursue a great education without the limitation of tuition costs or student loan debt.”

Other Costs

Tuition is just the tip of the iceberg. When student groups advocate for an equitable education, it means going beyond free tuition to include all the auxiliary costs students pay every quarter.

After paying for their courses, students are still expected to spend money on school supplies, food and housing. Half of UC students face food insecurity and many have to navigate insecure housing or houselessness. At UCSC, students experiencing financial hardships can go to Slug Support to receive assistance for these needs.

“We want students to come in and ask questions and get the support that they need so that they can thrive here,” said Slug Support Director Mariah Lyons. “Even if students aren’t sure if we’re the right resource they need, we’re more than happy to still meet with them or answer questions and make sure they get to the place they need to get to.”

Slug Support attempts to address a larger structural issue, but if tuition were free, students could much more easily pay for non-tuition costs encountered in college. Those fighting for a more equitable education see free tuition as the first step in the right direction, but know there is still more work to be done.

“It’s not a given that we’re going to be in an endless cycle of tuition hikes,” said Max Lubin. “We can fight back, we can lower tuition. We can lower it to zero if we build the kind of movement that we need to make ourselves heard and flex student power in Sacramento. We just have to fight for it.”


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