Caught in the middle
Politician lobbies for tuition-reducing measure
“How many of you would like to pay two-thirds less for tuition and fees?” he asked straight away after taking the stage set up in the Trinity Commons area last Thursday (April 19). The question was met with generous applause from about a hundred students and others milling about during the Associated Students’ Make it Matter event, a nonpartisan voter-registration and awareness drive.
Block, a San Diego Democrat and chairman of the Assembly Higher Education Committee, was on a multiple-campus tour, drumming up support for the Middle Class Scholarship Act, a proposal to subsidize the majority of tuition and fees for California State University and University of California students with household incomes under $150,000 but too high to be eligible for financial aid.
The act is bound to be a no-brainer on the 23 CSU and 10 UC campuses, but it’s going to be a tougher sell in the Senate and Assembly. That’s because the estimated $1.1 billion generated to fund the scholarship would take a tax-policy change of charging multi-state corporations doing business in California by the amount of their sales, rather than on the percentage of business.
Block, co-author with Speaker John A. Perez of Assembly Bill 1500 and Assembly Bill 1501, which would eliminate that corporate loophole and fund the scholarships, respectively, said that the bills would affect mostly out-of-state corporations, mainly tobacco companies and certain automobile manufacturers. And they would benefit nearly 200,000 college students, automatically cutting their tuition and fees by two-thirds, a yearly savings of more than $4,000 for 150,000 eligible CSU students and more than $8,000 for about 42,000 UC students. (Community college students would receive aid to pay for textbooks or other fees under the plan.)
Still, for Republicans, that spells tax increase.
And there are competing interests among Democrats.
As Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters pointed out this week, Senate Bill 1505, the California Keep Our Promises Act, by Sen. Mark DeSaulnier’s (D-Concord) proposes spending $600 million of that same potential pool of money on services for veterans.
During his brief talk at Chico State, Block explained how middle-income earners are a marginalized group when it comes to higher education. While low-income students are eligible for financial aid, and students from wealthy families can afford the current cost of tuition, students from middle-income families bear a huge financial burden.
“If you’re not born into wealth and privilege, that doesn’t mean you don’t deserve an affordable higher education,” he said.
He was echoed earlier that day by John Vigna, a press secretary for Speaker Perez, who introduced the Middle Class Scholarship Act.
Vigna, a 2006 graduate of Sacramento State, said his family would have qualified under this plan. Instead, like many students, he had to take on loans. That was before the economy tanked, before so many families went from two wage-earners to one, or were put out of work entirely.
“It’s really targeted at the middle-class families who have taken a lot of hits in the recession,” he said of the pending legislation.
The Middle Class Scholarship Act would bring tuition fees back to the levels seen more than a decade ago, but it would not keep the CSU and UC systems from instituting fee hikes in the future. (Fees at the CSU have risen by 191 percent since 2004 due to declining support from the state.)
Block, a professor for more than 20 years at San Diego State, went on to reference the Master Plan for Higher Education, which 50 years ago set out the goals of increasing the access, affordability and quality of higher education. Today, that plan is crumbling. For example, because there are fewer course offerings due to budget constraints, many students cannot earn degrees in four years. Block noted that postponing the graduation rate of students further burdens them financially and keeps qualified workers out of the job market, which in turn hurts California.
Block championed the Middle Class Scholarship Act as a grassroots movement. He encouraged students to sign a petition at middleclassscholarship.com and to join a social-media campaign for the effort, including uploading videos to YouTube. He invited students to the State Capitol to speak in committee about the benefits of the proposal. A simply majority vote will do there. He acknowledged it will take a stronger effort to win over the Senate and Assembly, where two-thirds votes are required for passage.
“You need to join this fight,” Block said. “You need to make it matter.”