There was a time in the not-too-distant past when Californians could attend top tier research universities as well as state and community colleges without incurring student debt. It was not that long ago that public colleges and universities didn’t even charge tuition.

This report details the transition from a debt free public higher education system to one that leaves hundreds of thousands of students deep in debt year after year. It also details the corresponding tax cut given to the wealthiest Californians, the lost revenue of which could have been used to pre-empt the growing student debt crisis.

This report finds:

  • Due to the repeal of the California state estate tax, the state lost $18 billion in revenue, between 2003 and 2016, that would have been paid exclusively by multi-millionaires and billionaires.
  • Over that same period, average in-state tuition and fees for public colleges and universities went up nearly 70 percent after accounting for inflation.
  • Average student debt for graduates of public colleges and universities rose 17 percent, after accounting for inflation.
  • Restoring a robust estate tax in California would generate over $4 billion annually, paid for by approximately 4,000 multi-millionaires and billionaires in the state. From 2001 through 2019, approximately $25 billion will have been lost due to the elimination of the state estate tax.

As the state population and college student population became more racially diverse, state support declined and the burdens of paying for college fell more heavily on students and their families.


A movement is underway to restore debt-free higher education to California, funded by the restoration of the state estate tax. The coalition behind the effort, College for All California, has generated a ballot initiative campaign focused on the 2020 election.

There are also multiple College for All proposals currently under consideration at the federal level championed by Senators Bernie Sanders and Brian Schatz. These proposals are viable and bold plans to greatly expand investment in public higher education for the next generation.


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