Free Online University of California Education for All Aims for Ballot 2018

The University of California system has 10 campuses, 150 academic disciplines, and 600 graduate degree programs.

An Orange County real estate broker wants to add tens of thousands of online courses to that list. And he wants to make them available to the public. For free. The Bernie Sanders-style proposal, officially submitted this week to the California Attorney General as a potential ballot initiative, is clearly a long shot.

But its author, Boyd Roberts of Laguna Beach, thinks people will be so enthused by the prospect of getting a world class education on their laptops for no cost that they’ll come out in droves to help him get the measure on the November 2018 ballot.

“The first thing it does is establish the right of the public to access publicly owned higher education,” he says. “More specifically, it gives them the right to audit all publicly owned higher education online.”

The measure would apply to Cal State University campuses and California Community Colleges, too. It would establish a two-tiered system for access to online courses: Anyone could audit a class online, but those who seek degrees would have to pay what amounts to a break-even price for the institution involved, Roberts says.

If voters approve the measure, it would amend the state’s constitution. As such, it would take 585,407 valid voter signatures to make the ballot. And that’s if the Attorney General approves the proposal’s language for signature gathering, a process that’s usually without many glitches. Gathering that many signatures almost always requires a professional firm’s help at the cost of $3 million or so, experts have estimated.

Roberts, who’s also running for Congress as a Democrat against Republican U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, thinks a rare grassroots effort relying on volunteers could produce a breakthrough initiative.

“I think it would be very popular with students and parents,” he says. “I visualize a social media campaign like the Ice Bucket Challenge of the Women’s March. If it catches hold people can sign up their friends and ask them to get signatures.”

The would-be politician says the effort could be cost neutral because it would attract new students to the online degree programs. Bonds would be issued to pay for initial infrastructure, he says. “I’ve got it set up to not impact the taxpayer at all,” Roberts says. “Schools can’t make it a profit center for the state and universities, either.”

The measure would also encourage instructors to use “free, open-source books,” Roberts says.