Here's what would it take to give California students a debt-free college education

California could help students get through college without debt — but at a hefty potential cost of $3.3 billion annually, a new state report says.

The report by the state Legislative Analyst’s Office laid out different ways the state could help students at the University of California, California State University and California Community Colleges cover both tuition and living expenses.

The analysis comes as concern rises over spiraling student debt, which has topped $1 trillion nationwide. Worries over college costs also have deepened among some families since UC regents approved a tuition increase last week and Gov. Jerry Brown proposed phasing out the state’s Middle Class Scholarship program for new students beginning this fall. Cal State University trustees also are considering a tuition increase. 

The report cautioned that moving to cover both tuition and living expenses would carry a “significant price tag” and that potential consequences should be carefully considered.

But Assemblyman Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento), who initiated the Legislature’s request for the report last year, said the program could be phased in over several years to keep the costs reasonable, and lauded the report for laying out a range of policy options.

“The goal was never to do this overnight,” McCarty said in an interview Wednesday. “This report gives us a realistic road map to do this over a number of years. College affordability and reducing student debt loads is a top legislative priority.”

For students who attend Los Angeles schools and live off campus, the report calculates annual college costs of $19,845 for community college, $25,060 for Cal State and $30,345 for UC. 

About 53% of UC and Cal State students graduate with debt averaging around $19,500, the report said. Only 2% of community college students take out loans, which average around $5,000. 

Those debt levels are below the national average. Yet, according to a survey last December by the Public Policy Institute of California, Californians view college affordability as the top problem facing the state’s higher education system and 82% want to see more scholarships and grants.

A program to cover both tuition and living expenses would be more generous than the free college plans proposed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and New York Gov. Mario Cuomo. Those cover only tuition.

Under California’s current financial aid programs, more than half of undergraduates at UC and Cal State pay no tuition. Many of those students, however, say they still struggle to pay for housing, food and other expenses in the state’s high-cost urban centers.

In estimating potential program costs, state analysts calculated the gap left to cover college expenses after deducting expected student and family contributions and federal financial aid. The state costs to fill the gap would vary considerably depending on various factors, including whether aid would be limited to full-time students and whether they would get it for each year of their studies. 

McCarty, who heads the Assembly budget subcommitttee on education finance, plans to hold a joint hearing on the report on Feb. 27 with Assemblyman Jose Medina (D-Riverside), who chairs the Assembly’s Higher Education Committee.

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