“I think we should be working toward free tuition. That may sound pretty radical, but that was in the original intention of the CSU system, so lower-income students could afford education without having to break the bank with their family, or not even being able to go because they can’t afford it.” ” Cal Poly SLO student Erica Hudson as quoted in the San Luis Obispo Tribune.

Make it free! Make it free!

Fearless prediction. The next big fight in California budgeting is coming, and it will be about a student movement to make public universities free. And it could scramble politics and budgeting in the state.

The San Luis Obispo Tribune offered a detailed story recently about Students for Quality Education, which has chapters at 19 of the 23 CSU campuses, and is ramping up for a big push this fall. They are going to challenge the CSU’s plans for annual increases in tuition tied to inflation – a model that resembles the approach favored by the legislature (and with some departures, by UC).

And they have a great argument. Subsidies to higher education more than pay for themselves; they were the foundation of California’s 20th century success. And tuition and fees have more doubled in the past decade, leaving many students in debt. The state, even in good times, is more interested in throwing money in a complicated rainy day fund than in investing in public higher education. And there are a lot of young Bernie Sanders supporters who need something to do.

Free tuition is it.

And there are many ways the students, and their sympathizers, could draw blood. One target would be Prop 55: the partial extension of Prop 30. They should point out that the measure doesn’t retain a sales tax increase, and is likely to produce less money than the stopgap Prop 30. The question: why doesn’t the state make tax changes that bring in more billions that go to higher education?

The students would also be wise to draft and start circulating a ballot initiative for 2018. It should be simple: bar UC and CSU from charging any fees or tuition to Californians, perhaps with the caveat that fees can be charged to students from families who make $250,000 or more.

That would precipitate a crisis in Sacramento. How to pay for it? How to budget for it? But that would be healthy. Gov. Brown and Sacramento have dodged fundamental questions about the budget and taxation, instead limiting spending and riding the wave of economic growth. The budget system is still dysfunctional, as will become apparent in the next recession. Or when university students demand what ought to be their birthright.