A Student Proposal Could Make a University of California Education Affordable Once Again

Students would be required to pay back 5 percent of their income for 20 years.

Back in the golden days of the 1960s and 1970s, students could attend one of the 10 University of California campuses for almost nothing. They graduated without crippling debt, enabling them to buy homes, start families, and live the California dream.

Today, the system is balancing its budgets on out-of-state tuition dollars, and students are so angry about the spiraling cost of attending a UC school that they've marched on freeways and occupied meetings of the Board of Regents. But one group of students, Fix UC, is moving beyond protest signs, presenting a plan to the Regents that might help solve the Golden State's higher-education fiscal crisis.

Under the Fix UC proposal, students would pay nothing upfront to attend any University of California campus. They'd go through four years of school without having to worry about coming up with the next tuition payment or how to pay for housing, enabling them to focus solely on their studies.

After graduation, students would be required to pay back 5 percent of their income for 20 years. If a graduate lost her job or went through a patch of underemployment, her repayment amount would adjust accordingly. Graduates who stayed in California to work, thus contributing to the state's tax base, would pay back half a percent less. Those who worked in the public sector—like school teachers—would see another 1 percent chopped off their bill. Out-of-state and international students would be required to pay back 6 percent of their income.

The proposal suggests the state gradually adopt the model, starting with a small group of students whose entire cost of attending a UC is already covered. Repayments would be enforced by a new office with the power to confiscate graduates' income tax returns if they didn't make payments.

At a recent Regents meeting, University of California president Mark G. Yudof said he was impressed with the proposal and that the regents "think the ideas are constructive." And according to the number-crunchers at Business Week, the idea is feasible. Current in-state tuition at UC San Diego is about $52,936. An engineering graduate, the magazine determined, earns a starting salary of about $55,000. That means 20 years of Fix UC payments would equal out to about one year's salary—a pretty affordable deal, especially considering the payments would be interest-free.

The hitch is that the cost of college has been rising faster than inflation, meaning that the $52,936 would cost the state $98,814 at a conservative 3.18 percent inflation rate. That would be fine if graduates' salaries also were rising with inflation, but because that's not currently happening, it'd be tough to make the system financially viable for the state.

The University of California campuses are still reeling from $650 million in cuts this year, and Governor Jerry Brown says more are on deck in 2012—which will cause even more tuition increases. The days of a completely free higher education may be long gone, and the Fix UC plan may not be the perfect solution, but it's refreshing to see some real brainstorming on how to make college affordable once again.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

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