Education

It costs 1,360% more to go to a CSU than 40 years ago – and that’s adjusted for inflation

Why California students need debt-free college

Monique Graham, a fourth-year communication and dance major at Sacramento State, is $40,000 in debt from student loans. She explains how one proposal by Assembly Democrats' would help her.
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Monique Graham, a fourth-year communication and dance major at Sacramento State, is $40,000 in debt from student loans. She explains how one proposal by Assembly Democrats' would help her.

When it comes to preaching financial savvy to college students forking over considerable cash for school, the “back in my day” argument doesn’t apply.

Working hard and living at home can only go so far in staving off debt for today’s students because of steep fee increases that have unfolded over the past 40 years, according to the California Budget and Policy Center determined in a recent data analysis.

The center adjusted 1979 college tuition and fees for inflation and found the cost of attending a University of California school is six times greater than 40 years ago. A year at UC today costs $14,400, up from an inflation-adjusted $2,200 in 1979.

Meanwhile, the cost of attending a California State University campus is 1,360 percent greater than it was in 1979. Back then, students paid an inflation-adjusted $500 for a year at a CSU. Today they pay $7,300.

Living expenses are up, too. Students pay $4,000 more per year in food and housing costs, totaling nearly $14,000 per year.

“The ‘back in my day’ narrative is tempting on the surface,” wrote Amy Rose, policy analyst for the center and author of the study. “Many students in prior generations were able to work moderate hours and attend school full-time, graduating on time and with little to no debt. Today’s students face a much different scenario, with significantly higher total costs of attendance, largely due to rising housing costs.”

California students graduate with more than $20,000 in debt, a number below the national average. The state’s general fund financially supports the public university systems, but budget cuts “have shifted the cost of public higher education from the state to the student, as universities raised tuition and fees to make up for lost revenues.”

Cal Grants cover up to $5,732 at CSU and $12,570 at UC, the center notes. Both systems also offer need-based grants. But while the robust state financial aid system helps keep low- and middle-income students debt-free, the additional housing and food expenses — as well as transportation and book costs — leave thousands of students struggling to keep afloat.

“These students are more likely to be students of color and the costs of tuition and basic needs are, therefore, more likely to be a barrier to them accessing a high-quality education,” Rose said. “They are also more likely to experience poor academic, health, and mental health outcomes which can snowball into them taking part-time classes, dropping courses, or skipping semesters which means that they take longer to graduate.”

Rose wrote that legislators should consider the obstacles students face in the changed education landscape, and said it’s in the state’s hands to make up for years of “disinvestment.”

“The state’s economy and ability to remain competitive suffers greatly from this disinvestment,” Rose said. “And at the same time, the state has the ability to make policy choices that take us in a different direction.”

Lawmakers are considering a number of proposals that help address homelessness on California campuses, the rising student debt crisis and building rainy-day funds to ensure future economic downfalls don’t financially break students.

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Hannah Wiley joined The Bee as a legislative reporter in 2019. She produces the morning newsletter for Capitol Alert and previously reported on immigration, education and criminal justice. She’s a Chicago-area native and a graduate of Saint Louis University and Northwestern.


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