United States citizens owe $1. 31 trillion in student debt, according to a report aired by CNBC. The increase in such debt for the fourth quarter of 2016 ($31 billion) outpaced the new automobile originations for the entire year ($22 billion). Student debt is even greater than the national credit card debt which rose by $32 billion in 2016 to hit a record high of $779 billion. The bottom line of all this data is that we have a generation of students who are leaving college to begin their professional lives with tens of thousands of dollars of debt hanging over their heads.
Is it any wonder that there are now 5. 6 million young people between the ages of 16 and 24 in our country who are neither working nor enrolled in school. Like discouraged workers — those who have given up looking for a job — these young people may be demoralized by the realization that decent jobs in today’s economy require a college education, but the cost of that education is beyond their comprehension. To tell a 17-year-old student from a working-class family that it may cost $50,000, $60,000 or considerably more to complete college is like asking her or him to climb Mt. Everest.
Perhaps there is some hope in sight. However, it will not be a reversion to the halcyon days of yore in California when the Master Plan for Higher Education was put into effect in 1960. At that time, the State Legislature created a path of higher education that included moving through the California Community Colleges (CCC) to the California State Universities (CSU) or the University of California (UC).
The original idea was that all students could begin at one of the state’s hundred or so CCCs and then transfer to a CSU or UC to complete a four-year degree. As part of the plan, the CCCs were to be tuition free. To an extent, that was also true of the CSU’s, although the four-year colleges were allowed to charge certain fees.
Still, a student could expect to complete college with minimum expense or a low-cost National Defense Student Loan. But, over the years, especially after voters passed Proposition 13 in 1978 (which was intended to lower property taxes), more and more fees were imposed and “tuition” managed to sneak back into the system. Currently, a student who is a California resident must pay $46 per unit for CCC courses.
Today, a full-time load is considered to be 12 units, and that comes to $552 per semester at most of the state‘s community colleges. Then, add to that the cost of books and a range of fees that includes health care, parking, materials, student body membership, and so forth, and the total expense is considerably higher. Moreover, some CCC’s are more expensive. For example, College of Marin costs $680 per semester, De Anza College (in the heart of Silicone Valley) is $700, and East San Gabriel Valley Regional Occupational Program in West Covina is $1,850.
Also, consider this fact: when I went to Foothill College (1959-1961), a full-time load was 16 units per semester. This allowed a student who took all of the appropriate classes and received a passing grade in every class to graduate with an Associate in Arts degree and transfer to a four-year college after four semesters, entering the new college with junior standing.
At today’s 12 units per semester (and meeting all other criteria), it now takes five semesters to leave a community college with the same status. Assuming that the pattern continues during a student’s upper-division work, it now takes five years to complete the “four-year degree. ”And, if everything goes well, that’s an extra year of expense.
However, it is too often the case that not everything goes well. This is especially true if a student has to take “sequential” courses, which may not be offered every semester or quarter. And, other things can go wrong.
When it came time for me to file for my bachelor’s degree from San Jose State University, I was told that I had not taken a required course in literature. But, I had a declared major in English and Literature during my years at Foothill, and I pointed out to the SJS officer that I had completed “Introduction to Literature,” “Modern American Literature,” “The Short Story in Contemporary Literature,” and “European Literature. ”The officer said, “Well, those don’t include our literature course.”
Consequently, I didn’t graduate with my class in June. I was mailed my degree after I completed a literature class during summer school. C’est la vie!
But, as I mentioned, hope is in sight. On Friday, Oct. 13, Gov. Jerry Brown signed AB 19 by Assemblymember Miguel Santiago (D, Los Angeles) that “lays the groundwork to waive the fees for the first year of community college for all first-time students,” according to Melanie Mason of the Los Angeles Times. Katie Lobosco, reporting for CNN Money, adds that these students would have to be California residents and must be enrolled full time. That’s because Assembly Member Santiago believes that full-time students have a better success rate than part-time students.
The new law, which could start for the 2018-2019 academic year, is contingent on lawmakers including funding for the program in next year’s budget. That, too, is subject to approval in June 2018. But, unlike the 1960 Master Plan, AB19 may not see students through the entire lower-division program, and it does not pave the way toward an innovative approach to higher education. In fact, California is only following the lead of similar legislation that has been adopted in New York and Rhode Island. However, I believe that it’s a step in the right direction.
During the 20th century, California led the entire world in virtually every academic, and consequently technological and scientific, field because of our interlocking system of higher education among the CCC’s, CSU’s, and UC’s. Thus far in the 21st century, we’ve been surviving on past accomplishments. We need to reorder our priorities and rededicate ourselves to the superior education of the coming generations. If AB19 leads us back to the original Master Plan for Higher Education, that would be a good start.