Gubernatorial candidate Chiang wants drastic tuition roll back at California’s public universities

April 3, 2018

California State Treasurer John Chiang and candidate for governor lays out his higher education vision at a forum hosted by the Campaign for College Opportunity in Los Angeles on April 2, 2018. Campaign president Michele Siqueiros interviewed him.

Gubernatorial candidate and State Treasurer John Chiang wants to roll back a decade of tuition increases at the University of California and the Cal State systems, reducing those costs by more than 40 percent, while also providing two years of free community college.

Chiang, who previously was state controller, said he would use general fund revenues, money from cutting out government waste, tax revenues from legal marijuana sales and other sources to fund those savings for in-state students at the two- and four-year public campuses. “There’s a lot of pockets where we can find money so we can invest in education,” the Democrat said Monday evening at the second in a series of forums sponsored by the Campaign for College Opportunity for gubernatorial candidates to discuss higher education issues.

Chiang has held the elected state treasurer’s position since 2015 and before that was state controller starting in 2007. His bid to become governor has not caught fire although he has some admirers for his financial skills and wide grasp of complicated issues he displayed Monday. A recent poll by the Public Policy Institute of California placed him in fifth place among the candidates in the June primary, with support from only 6 percent of the poll respondents. Still, Chiang ranks second in fundraising, with about $9 million in hand, topped only by frontrunner Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s $19 million.

Tuition and mandatory systemwide fees for California residents are now $12,630 at UC and $5,742 at Cal State, and both systems are considering hikes for next fall. But if Chiang has his way, those would go back to the 2008-09 levels — just before very large tuition increases were adopted in response to state revenue cutbacks in the Great Recession. Such a reversal would bring annual undergraduate tuition to $7,066 for UC and $3,048 for Cal State, but could require upwards of $2 billion more in state funding a year, according to some estimates.

At the forum in Los Angeles, Chiang added that he wants state funding to be large enough so that more California students are admitted at the public universities of their first choice and are not squeezed out by out-of-state students, who pay much higher tuition. While he did not offer specifics on that goal, his website states that current caps on out-of-state enrollment at UC still permit too many residents outside of California to claim a spot at the already packed system and that he’d tighten the limits.

(Nearly 17 percent of the roughly 217,000 UC undergraduates are out-of-state students, but that figure is higher at some campuses like Berkeley and Los Angeles. At the CSU, about 5 percent of the roughly 430,000 undergraduates are out-of-state students.)

“When parents and other taxpayers have paid all through the life of that child with investment with the hope and opportunity and belief that their child has better access to the University of California or CSU than an out-of-state student, if you want to establish trust, you better keep that trust. That will be my priority,” he told the audience at the headquarters of the LA84 Foundation, the youth sports organization that grew out of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.

Chiang on Monday also promised the audience that he would make the first two years of community college free for students. Later, without offering many details, he told EdSource in an interview that community college should be free for those years “even without aid,” meaning that any other forms of financial aid could be used for other costs like books, transportation and living costs.

Mikhail Zinshteyn/EdSource

John Chiang greets audience members after the forum in Los Angeles.

The state has taken steps in that direction already. Just under half of community college students in California now don’t pay tuition because they receive fee waivers available for low income students. In addition, the Legislature passed a bill last year that would allow, but not require, community colleges to make one year of community college free for any student regardless of financial need. Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget proposes $46 million for next year to help implement that but many details remain to be worked out. Full-time community college tuition for California residents ranges from roughly $1,100 to $1,400 a year, depending on course load.

Michele Siqueiros, president of the Campaign for College Opportunity, a non-profit higher education advocacy group, was the forum moderator Monday and at one point pressed Chiang to list what his education priorities as governor would be. Chiang declared: “My top value and the reason I am running for governor is I want to make sure that we have a world class education system.” He said that his first priority is making improvements to early childhood education, although he did not provide details, and that higher education would be next.

Newsom was the first to participate last month at the Campaign for College Opportunity’s series of individual talks with leading candidates to succeed Gov. Brown. Former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is scheduled for April 24 and Republican businessman and activist John Cox has been invited to participate in one soon, officials said.

Asked by EdSource whether he supports Gov. Brown’s proposal to change community college funding so it is in part based on whether students earn certificates, degrees or transfer, Chiang said. “I’m open to it.” Yet, like others who’ve expressed some concern about Brown’s plan, he said he worries the plan could hurt colleges with higher numbers of low-income students or students who are not well-prepared academically. “You have students and colleges that are in different conditions. Like some where there’s more financial wherewithal with some students,” he said.

Chiang reminisced Monday about how much his parents—immigrants from Taiwan—emphasized education. His mother would cook meals for group study parties at their Chicago-area home and admonish his high school friends to get good grades. Decades later, one friend said “Every time I see Mrs. Chiang, I get beads of sweat pouring down,” Chiang lightheartedly recalled. Chiang earned a bachelor’s degree in finance at the University of South Florida and a law degree from Georgetown University.

In response to a question from Siqueiros, Chiang said he would seek the return of a state office that coordinates higher-education policy, something many experts feel is needed and Newsom also supports. Brown ended funding in 2011 for such a state body, known as the California Postsecondary Education Commission, and vetoed a legislative effort to bring back a version of it in 2015. This year the Legislature is considering yet another bill to establish a coordinating agency. 

But while Chiang supports increases in state spending on higher education, he stressed that families can save enough money over time to afford some college costs too. He recalled how his parents took him to deposit small amounts of money to the bank each week. “Even without interest, if you deposited $4 a week you would pay for community college after 17 years,” he said.

Chiang said he was disappointed that the bond issue for low-income and veterans housing on the November state ballot is $4 billion, not the $9 billion he wanted. He said he would fight for a larger bond in the future and wanted some of that money to be used to build more low-cost housing for college students.

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