Does higher education in California still unlock economic opportunities for young people? I explored that question by looking at the cost of a college degree through the lives of four students at very different points in California's history.
The 1950s -- The early years
Student: Darline Miller, UC Berkeley
Darline Miller attended UC Berkeley after high school during the 1950s, when student fees were at an all-time low. Students paid an $84 “incidental fee” each year. Tuition for nonresidents was $300 per year.
During this time, the undergraduate population was mostly white. Many students were also World War II veterans going to college on the GI Bill, a law that offered financial aid and a range of other services.
“The atmosphere was electric,” Miller, now 87, recalls. “There was nothing arduous about the college application process. There was no competition … you could just get in.”
Coming from Olympia, Washington, Miller remembers hopping on the local city bus to simply observe all the interesting people and places on Berkeley streets. She rented an apartment six blocks from campus for $35 per month.
Miller attended UC Berkeley for two years but she left school to start a family, like many women during this era. She later returned to college, got her degree, and became an educator.
The 1960s -- California’s bold experiment
Student: John Tintocalis, California State University, Los Angeles
John Tintocalis was born and raised in Concord, New Hampshire, but moved to California during the 1960s to take advantage of what he called a “golden opportunity” in higher education.
During this decade, California embarked on a bold new experiment under the Master Plan for Higher Education, a groundbreaking law that established a three-tiered higher education system consisting of UC, CSU and community colleges.
The belief was that all young people -- regardless of their academic level or family income -- should have a chance to get a college degree at little or no cost.
Tintocalis was part of a wave of young baby boomers living in other states who heard about this college promise and settled in California.
While there was more diversity on CSU campuses, most of the student population continued to be white.
Tintocalis attended CSU Los Angeles, which -- like most CSU campuses at the time -- required residents to pay roughly $300-$500 in tuition. The system remains fairly affordable relative to comparable institutions in other states.
Tintocalis graduated with little debt and a degree in education. He worked as a public school teacher for more than 30 years in Palmdale, a desert community in northeast L.A. County. He passed away in 2012.
“He was very proud of what he accomplished,” says Rosa Tintocalis, John’s wife. “He would say, ‘Quality education is not just for private schools. You can have a tremendous education in state-run schools.’ ”
2010-2016 -- Drowning in debt
Student: Guillermo Rogel, UC Berkeley
Guillermo Rogel, 22, is from Riverside and graduated from UC Santa Cruz in June 2016. He represents the new face of higher education in the Golden State.
Latino students now make up more than 20 percent of the undergraduate population at UC -- the biggest demographic shift the system has experienced. More than 72 percent of these students are the first in their families to go to college and come from low-income families.
Beginning in 2010, however, UC tuition and fees experienced a dramatic and relentless upward climb, more than tripling, reaching over $12,000 per year at UC and over $6,000 per year at CSU.
For low-income students, UC created the Blue and Gold Opportunity Plan, which covers tuition as long as their families make less than $80,000 per year.
Rogel qualified for this financial aid program, but he's still $45,000 in debt. Rogel says expensive student housing and everyday costs like food and school supplies forced him to rack up the debt.
"I’m always hoping that Congress is going to do something at the federal level that would abolish all of student debt,” Rogel says. “It’s definitely scary to think about. There’s $45,000 in debt that I have to get over before I can really take on the rest of life.”
Rogel now works as a student organizer for Washington state’s university system.
2016 and beyond -- Free tuition for all?
Student: Melissa Salcedo, UC Irvine
Melissa Salcedo, 18, will attend UC Irvine this fall as a college freshman. The San Diego native comes from a large Mexican-American family, with four brothers and one sister. Salcedo is the youngest and the first in her family to attend UC. She plans to major in creative writing.
Salcedo, however, is attending UC at a time when the system continues to be overwhelmed -- changing demographics, soaring housing prices, more student demand and less state support for public universities are to blame.
Thanks to a special budget agreement between Gov. Jerry Brown and UC, tuition has remained stable over the past several years, with average tuition and fees costing $13,000 a year for undergraduates. In exchange for no tuition increases, the state is giving UC more state funding as long as the system enrolls more California residents.
Salcedo is also a recipient of UC’s Blue and Gold Opportunity financial aid program. But her mother, Becky Salcedo, says the family is still struggling to pay escalating student fees.
“Melissa knows we would do whatever we can to help her go through because this is what she wants,” Becky Salcedo says. “So yes, dollar signs are going through your head. You’re thinking about what else is coming our way.”
Efforts to institute a "debt free college education" have become the focal point for many lawmakers, including presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. But some question whether that can realistically be accomplished.
Experts say if current trends in tuition increases persist, UC will become the most expensive public higher education system in the country. However, UC tuition remains substantially lower than that of most private institutions.