Before state and federal legislators began cutting education budgets and before UC Regents began habitually hiking tuition rates, public higher education was tuition-free in the state of California. UC tuition has now increased to $12,630 per year for California residents since tuition was implemented by the regents in 1980.

The College for All Act, a grassroots measure proposed for the 2018 ballot, would use an estate tax on the wealthiest 0.2 percent of Californians to supplement California’s current higher education budget. The tax would start at 12 percent on estates and gifts of $3.5 million and increase until 22 percent with the increased value of an estate or gift. This would make in-state, public undergraduate higher education tuition-free for all California residents, supplementing the current education budget by about $4 billion per year.

Illustration by Lizzy Choi

“We have to start to demand that education is a public good,” said Jason Wozniak, lead Santa Cruz and Santa Clara organizer for the College for All Act. “There is no justification for anyone going into debt for education, […] especially when you take into consideration that the people that suffer most under the rising cost of tuition are the people that have been historically marginalized in this country. We need to change that.”

The College for All Act would cover tuition for all undergraduate California residents at all UCs, CSUs and community colleges. The campaign aims to interrupt the idea that college education should be paid for by individuals rather than the government and similar movements are taking form nationwide, including a bill Senator Bernie Sanders introduced to Congress last year.

The campaign focuses on the needs of students from marginalized communities, who are traditionally most affected by tuition costs. About two-thirds of student debt in the U.S. is held by women, who will also likely spend more time paying off that debt due to the gender pay gap. Fifty-seven percent of Black women paying off student debt have trouble meeting basic needs like housing, food and medical expenses, according to the American Association of University Women.

Black and Latinx students are also more likely to take out more loans, and undocumented students are not eligible for federal financial aid at all.

Jeff Stoll, a UC Santa Cruz undergraduate student organizer for the act who identifies as a first-generation student of color, was not able to submit his paperwork in time to receive a college fee waiver his first year of college and thought he would not be able to attend.

“I felt like I had failed my family, […] who had tried for years to get me to college, […] that I wasn’t able to live up to what they had hoped,” Stoll said.

He had to pool money from extended family to pay for his first year and has received the fee waiver his past two years of school.

“That was something that was extremely degrading and embarrassing,” he said. “It also tied me so much to the financial cost of education and the unjustness of class politics with regards to education and the inaccessibility of it.”

Other students work to pay for various costs associated with attending university. About four out of five students work during college averaging 19 hours a week, according to findings from the 2013 College Student Pulse survey.

“One of the ongoing conversations I have with students is just the tremendous impacts on their education that has happened because they are having to work,” said Sheeva Sabati, a graduate student organizer for the College for All Act. “[…] It really impacts the quality of education. It’s impacting their engagement, it’s impacting the way that they can be involved on campus.”

Rather than lobbying California congress, organizers of the College for All Act — supported by various workers unions, political and social justice groups — are petitioning to have the bill appear on November’s ballot.

The petition needs about 550,000 signatures total from registered voters by the end of April to appear on the ballot. It is currently unclear how many signatures have been gathered since petitioning began in January, said Jason Wozniak, a lead organizer for the act.

Regardless of whether it passes or not, the language of the ballot measure can be used as an example for other future initiatives to make public higher education free again. The movement to address the unequal access to higher education will most likely continue, Jeff Stoll said.

“What the College for All Act lets us do, and something that we find so rare in student organizing […] is that we can actually ask for what we want and demand it and feel like that’s real and possible,” Stoll said. “[…] We’re actually fighting against something that’s really big and that we can actually win.”