From Sacramento to the nation's capital, politicians are tapping into Americans' anxiety about the rising cost of a college education, proposals that aim to please students and parents while also advancing their own political goals.
Gov. Jerry Brown signed a budget that could freeze tuition at public universities – but only if voters approve his November tax initiative. Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez is pushing a massive scholarship program for middle-class students – only achievable if the Legislature approves a change to the tax code Democrats have been seeking for years. President Barack Obama has made the interest rates on student loans a prominent piece of his re-election campaign.
Tuition at public colleges has always been subject to politics, as it is set by politically appointed trustees based on spending decisions made by elected lawmakers. But economic forces in recent years have made college affordability an increasingly visible issue.
"More people have college degrees than ever before. A college degree is a prerequisite for more jobs than ever before. And there is an increased sense among voters that a college education is less affordable than ever before," observed Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California.
"Add up those three factors and you've got the makings of a pretty good political issue."
As states lost tax revenue during the recession, many cut back how much money they give to public universities, which in turn raised tuition to make up the difference. Tuition at University of California and California State University campuses has gone up by about 80 percent in the past five years.
The sharp increases led students to borrow more to pay for college. The nation's collective student loan debt is over $1 trillion – more than the debt Americans hold on their credit cards or auto loans.
Anger over the cost of college was evident during the Occupy protests last fall, when graduates railed about their debt and police wielding pepper spray and batons confronted students protesting tuition hikes. But it's not just an issue for the political fringe.
Polls show the cost of college is a big worry for most Americans. Seventy-five percent believe college is "too expensive for most Americans to afford," according to a Pew Research Center survey earlier this year, while 71 percent say "it's harder for today's young people to pay for college than it was for their parents' generation."
Californians in particular are concerned about college costs and blame state politicians, according to a 2011 survey by the Public Policy Institute of California. The poll found that 75 percent of Californians believe students have to borrow too much to pay for college, while 70 percent disapprove of the Legislature's handling of higher education.
So it's no surprise that politicians are trying to show they're doing something about it.
A potential tuition freeze
In a last-minute addition to the state budget Brown signed last month, legislators included a provision designed to get leaders of the state's public university systems to freeze tuition.
The freeze, however, is contingent on voter approval of Brown's November ballot initiative, which would temporarily raise income taxes on high earners and sales taxes.
The trade-off will help persuade voters to say "yes" to the initiative, a campaign spokesman said.
"Everyone is fed up with years of slashing schools and spiking tuition – the initiative gives voters the opportunity to reverse the troubling trend and put a stop to more classroom cuts and tuition hikes," political strategist Dan Newman said in an email.
UC administrator Dan Dooley said the tuition freeze will likely inspire university students, employees and alumni to campaign for Brown's measure.
"It clearly gives us a stake in the game," said Dooley, UC's senior vice president for external relations. "It's a much better mobilizing tool than what we had before."
If the tax initiative fails, Dooley said, UC tuition will almost certainly rise – perhaps by 20 percent in one jump.
UC President Mark Yudof is urging the governing board to support the tuition freeze and Brown's tax initiative. Regents are expected to vote this month on keeping UC tuition at $13,200 for another year if voters approve the ballot measure.
For the CSU system, the situation is more complicated because trustees already approved a tuition hike for the 2012-13 year, bringing it to about $6,900, and have collected fall semester tuition from many students. If CSU goes along with the plan to freeze tuition, it would issue refund checks of about $250 to parents and students if the initiative passes, said CSU spokeswoman Claudia Keith.
All of which makes the tax initiative much more salient to students who might otherwise tune out the issue. Jillian Ruddell, a 22-year-old Chico State student who sits on the CSU board of trustees, said she is already talking to her peers about Brown's ballot measure.
"Students have a vested interest in this tax initiative, so I think that will encourage students to go to the polls and vote in favor of it," she said.
Her colleague Steve Dixon, a Sacramento State graduate student who also sat on the board of trustees, sees it differently.
"We feel like pawns in a very awful game of chess," said Dixon, 45, who works for Republican Assemblyman Jim Nielsen. "Different groups are using the students for their own political needs. It's really a sad thing."
Earlier this spring, Assembly Speaker Pérez introduced his "Middle Class Scholarship" bills and an accompanying publicity campaign. Assembly Bill 1500 repeals a tax break that benefits out-of-state corporations and A.B. 1501 uses the money to pay for scholarships for college students with family incomes below $150,000. Under the plan, UC tuition would drop by about $8,100 and CSU tuition would go down by about $4,000 for qualified students.
Several Democrats sent their constituents mailers touting the legislation before the June primary. A website promoting the bills features videos of students talking about how hard it is to pay for college. The site urges readers to "Sign the petition," "Share your own story" and "Find and contact your legislator."
Patrick Callan, president of the Higher Education Policy Institute in San Jose, said the focus on lowering costs is worthy, but the timing is suspicious.
"The governor and Legislature have been incredibly passive about tuition increases until we hit this election year," he said.
The scholarships will be created only if the tax bill passes. And because it requires a two-thirds vote – including the support of some Republicans – there is little chance the package will go through.
Politicians in Washington are also trumpeting college affordability as an election-year issue. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee created a "student loan countdown" Web page that showed the days, hours and minutes until July 1, when the interest rate on subsidized federal loans would jump from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent unless Congress passed a bill extending the lower rate.
"Republican inaction will put students deeper in debt," the site said.
For months, Obama took a similar message to college campuses, late night TV and Twitter in a campaign to pressure Congress and persuade voters. Congress passed the rate extension bill late last month and Obama signed it Friday.
"In today's economy, a higher education is the surest path to finding a good job and earning a good salary, and making it into the middle class," Obama said during the bill-signing ceremony. "So it can't be a luxury reserved for just a privileged few. It's an economic necessity that every American family should be able to afford."