California Ballot Initiative Would Make College Free for Residents

Tim Goral's picture
Thursday, March 22, 2012

Clipboards in hand, high school seniors Estephania Franco and Jocelyn Sanchez approached a group of UC Berkeley students sitting on a curb in Sproul Plaza.

"Hey guys, you want free tuition?" one of them asked.

"Free? Tuition?" sophomore Josh Netter asked, as if waiting for the punchline. "I just feel like it's too good to be possible."

It wouldn't be -- if, by June, supporters of the "College for California" ballot petition managed to gather the signatures of 807,615 people registered to vote in California. And, of course, if voters approved it.

The proposed constitutional amendment, researched and written a year ago as part of a senior class project at Life Academy and Oakland Unity High School, would make state university tuition-free for full-time, in-state students who maintain a 2.7 GPA or perform 70 hours of community service each year. Californians who earn more than $250,000 a year in taxable income would subsidize this additional cost through higher income taxes. The students say they want to restore the tuition-free education policy the state Legislature embraced in 1960 when it adopted the California Master Plan for Higher Education.

The chances of the effort becoming more than a lesson in democracy, however, are slim at best.

"There has not, in the modern era, been a true grass roots initiative that has made it to the ballot," said Thad Kousser, a political-science professor at UC San Diego. By contrast, he said, "Any rich person that has access to a couple million dollars basically snaps their fingers and gets access to the ballot."

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