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Free University Tuition: How Many California Students Would Benefit?

Jacob Jackson September 1, 2016

During this election cycle, several candidates have proposed making public college tuition free. While some at the state and national levels are supporting tuition-free community college, Hillary Clinton has outlined a plan that includes four-year colleges—she proposes free tuition for students whose families earn less than $85,000. By 2021 that income threshold would rise to $125,000. How many students in California might benefit from such a plan?

Many students already attend California universities tuition free

California’s financial aid program, Cal Grants, provides grants (funding that students do not have to pay back) for full tuition for the state’s lowest-income students, as well money toward books and living expenses for some of them. Through a combination of Cal Grants, federal aid, and institutional aid, UC’s Blue and Gold Opportunity plan guarantees free tuition for any family making $80,000 a year or less. CSU has a similar plan, the State University Grant, which bases the amount a family will pay on a number of factors. On average, students who receive financial aid pay no tuition at UC or CSU if their families make $75,000 or less.

Expanding free tuition could impact thousands of California families

While the data on family income are not perfect, they can help us estimate how many students we might expect to benefit from free tuition. Right now, students from families in the $0 to $75,000 range make up about 49% of entering students at UC and 53% at CSU.

Raising the cap to $110,000—or beyond—would cover at least another 7% of students entering UC (2,300 students) and CSU (3,900 students) in 2014. The average student whose family income is between $75,000 and $110,000 would save about $4,839 at CSU or $2,744 at UC, resulting in more than $25 million in combined tuition savings for those thousands of families.

These estimates may be low, as many middle-class students who currently do not qualify for financial aid may have income levels that that would fall below the cap of an expanded program. Also, a nationwide free tuition program might encourage many low-income students who are currently scared off by the high sticker prices to apply to college or university.

The details of the plan would matter, of course. But if the federal government were to cover all of the $25 million needed to expand full-tuition guarantees at UC and CSU, it’s possible that thousands of low- and middle-income California students could benefit.

Notes: Data for both figures are from IPEDS for entering first-time California resident freshmen in fall 2014. Net tuition applies only to students who received some form of federal aid (grants or loans), which includes 68% of students at CSU and 65% of the students at UC.

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