Paying and politics

As skeptics invariably point out, there’s no such thing as completely “free” college. Providing education costs money, and those funds have to come from somewhere. Covering the full cost of attendance for every student would require a major investment of resources—Sen. Elizabeth Warren puts the cost of her debt-free college plan at $1.25 trillion. Whether it’s calling for a tax on stock transfers or a surcharge on multimillionaires, backers of free college have typically set their sights on the segment of society that holds the most resources: the wealthy.

Outside of progressive Democratic circles, however, lawmakers in the U.S. have usually balked at soaking the rich. Moderates from both parties at the state and national level have lined up behind less-expensive options such as waiving fees for community college alone. Republicans have pushed for market-friendly solutions such as income-share agreements, which allow students to promise schools or investors a percentage of their future income in exchange for funding their education.

Still, the country is living through a populist moment. And it’s hard to think of a state more likely to take an aggressive approach to the college affordability crisis than California, with its current budget surplus, Democrat-dominated legislature, and history of support for higher education.