The Price of Tuition-Free College

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Tuition-free college is a reality in California. The catch is that eligible students can’t always afford rent, food, or books.

“More than half of California college students don’t need to worry about tuition,” Ashley Powers writes in a recent feature for California Sunday Magazine. Thanks to California’s Master Plan for Higher Education, federal- and state-subsidized grants are available to help students from low-income families cover the cost of tuition at state-financed universities and colleges. “The problem,” Powers explains, “is the cost of everything else.”

In “The College Try,” Powers follows Liz Waite and Kersheral Jessup, two Cal State students who’ve each put themselves through six years of college. Both went to community colleges first to save money — Jessup for three years before transferring, Waite for six. Both believed a bachelor’s degree would spare them from homelessness, wage slavery, and following in their parents’ addictive footsteps (meth in Waite’s case, alcohol in Jessup’s). As they navigate bureaucratic mazes, couch-surfing roulette, and soul-killing jobs that don’t even require advanced degrees, the duo weigh their years of sacrifice against an unverifiable suspicion that years of work experience might have yielded better prospects.

At the Dems’ weekly meeting, about a dozen students chitchatted in a semicircle; the speakers before Liz were looking for volunteers to take surveys about election-related stress. When it was Liz’s turn, she bounded to the center.

“Hey, everybody, let’s make this awkward,” she said. “What words would you guys use to describe me? Like, if you look at me, what words come to your mind? Just shout ’em out.”

“Tall.”

She nodded. “Tall…”

“Student.”

“Blond.”

“Student, blond, right,” she said. “Here’s a word that’s probably not coming to your mind. And it’s” — she shot out her arms the way you would to yell, “Surprise!” — “homeless!” Liz looked at the audience: saucer eyes.

No type of school has been more successful at lifting the poor up to the middle class and beyond than midtier public universities like the Cal States. In a ranking published this year of colleges that helped the highest percentage of students claw their way out of poverty, four Cal State campuses made the top 10. Cal State Long Beach clinched the last spot, vaulting 78 percent of its students from the bottom of the economic ladder, where household incomes top out around $25,000 a year. But for all the good Cal State does for its alumni, most students there struggle to get their degrees. Only one in five finishes in four years, and a little more than half graduate in six, their progress slowed, in part, by soaring living costs in one of the nation’s most expensive states.

Two-thirds of the expense of attending a public four-year college stems from costs like rent, food, and books. The vast majority of Cal State students live off campus (the system has enough housing to accommodate only about 10 percent of its undergraduates). Cal State Long Beach estimates that off-campus students who don’t live at home need close to $18,000 a year in addition to the cost of tuition, or nearly the salary of a full-time minimum-wage worker.

Last year, researchers at Cal State estimated that nearly one in nine students is homeless. Even more couldn’t afford food on a regular basis (a problem at UCs, the California community colleges, and campuses from Hawaii to New York). Students without stable housing, in particular, are more likely to enroll part time, struggle in class, and drop out altogether. In California, lawmakers recently floated a proposal to help many UC and Cal State students with their expenses. Projected to cost more than a billion dollars a year, it sputtered.

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