February 01, 2006

Earlier this week, state Controller Steve Westly unveiled an innovative plan to make a free community college education available to every Californian. Westly announced his plan at the Community College League of California's annual Legislative Conference in Sacramento, which I attended. The plan was met with wild enthusiasm, including shouts of "right on!" and "it's about time!" from the audience, which gave Westly a lengthy standing ovation at the conclusion of his remarks.

Westly's plan would return California to the philosophy embodied in the original 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education, which led to the biggest and longest-running economic expansion in the history of our state. Under Westly's plan, every student without a college degree would qualify for a loan to pay their full tuition costs and would have the loan forgiven if they earn a community college degree or certificate or transfer to a four-year institution within six years. In his speech, Westly pointed to data, which goes all the way back to the post World War II G.I. Bill of Rights, that convincingly demonstrates that a more highly educated workforce earns more money and pays considerably more in taxes over time. Encouraging that dynamic in California, where per capita income appears to be falling, will benefit the state at least as much as it benefits students. To make that happen, Westly wants the state to make an investment in our students -- and do it in a responsible way that creates an incentive for students to complete their studies, which helps ensure the value of the state's investment.

I think Westly's proposal is brilliant. His idea will remedy several flaws with our current system of financial aid, including the inability of some needy students under the age of 24 to obtain the cooperation they need from their parents to fill out financial aid forms. It will also help middle-class students whose parents make too much to qualify for significant financial aid but who still can't afford to pay full tuition fees, which have escalated by more than 100 percent in recent years. It will also help students who simply don't want to go thru the often-humiliating process of applying for financial aid, which can be degrading, particularly for hard-working, financially disadvantaged would-be students who don't want to be treated like beggars. It may surprise some who have never been truly poor, but many needy and deserving students are simply too proud to apply for financial aid. You might say that pride is misplaced -- since wealthier students frequently try to nab as much financial aid as possible. But pride is often more important to people who have little or no money. Take that away and some of them -- often, the best of them, can feel like they have nothing left. So they postpone going to college or simply give up, hoping that maybe, just maybe, if they work hard enough in some menial, low-paying job some day their kids might have the opportunities that are beyond their reach. When that happens, proud but financially disadvantaged would-be students are not the only losers. California also loses, too. It loses the chance to develop the capacities -- and earning power -- of all its citizens.

Steve Westly is telling these students not to wait. He's telling them that our state will benefit if they complete an educational degree and that California is willing to make an investment in them if they will do their part. Not a handout. Not charity. But an investment that will help students and our state.

It's the best idea for community college policy reform I have ever seen. It also demonstrates why Steve Westly will be an outstanding Governor.