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Wait begins for free community college

Students gather in the school library for a study session. (Photo: rawpixel.com, via Shutterstock)

It will take awhile before Californians can enjoy the much-heralded free community college offer recently approved by Gov. Jerry Brown.

The earliest the free tuition could go into effect is fall 2018 and that’s only if the Legislature agrees to budget the $31.1 million needed to pay for the expected 19,000 students who would take advantage of a school-offered tuition waiver.

California community colleges are already giving tuition waivers to almost half of their students, mostly because they are low income.

Assembly Bill 19, which made headlines earlier this month, paves the way for the state’s 114 community colleges to waive tuition for first-year, full-time students (taking 12 or more units a semester).  The offer would apply to students of any income level. Tuition is $46 per unit which amounts to $1,104 for an academic year.

The earliest the free tuition could go into effect is fall 2018 and that’s only if the Legislature agrees to budget the $31.1 million needed to pay for the expected 19,000 students who would take advantage of the waiver.

Moreover, community colleges will have to join the newly created California College Promise program in order to offer the tuition waiver. The program requires them to meet numerous conditions, including partnering with K-12 schools to ensure that families learn about college prep courses and financial aid options.  Individual colleges could choose to only offer a partial tuition waiver or to not offer it at all and use the money for other needs.

California Community Colleges Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley believes those hurdles will eventually be overcome.

“We’re not asking taxpayers to come up with new money,” he said. “This is money that would be allocated for community colleges.” — Eloy Ortiz Oakley

California community colleges are already giving tuition waivers to almost half of their students, mostly because they are low income. In 2015-16, the colleges waived tuition for 43 percent of their 2.3 million students. The state gives waivers if students have an income that is less than 150 percent of the federal poverty level or $36,375 for a family of four.

Oakley anticipates there will be a commitment for funding in the governor’s January budget for the additional tuition waivers and that the Legislature will support the request. The money will come from Proposition 98, which requires a minimum percentage of the state’s budget to be spent on K-12 and community college education, Oakley said.

“We’re not asking taxpayers to come up with new money,” he said. “This is money that would be allocated for community colleges.”

The bill only offers free tuition to full-time students because students tend to be more successful when school is the main thing they do.

While it may take a year or two, Oakley believes all the state’s community colleges will participate in the new Promise program in one form or another.

Oakley pointed out that there are already about 50 colleges in the system that offer some type of promise program, with the goal of getting students in and through the school in a timely manner.

“Part of this bill creates the opportunity for colleges to offer free tuition but the bill is not about free tuition,” he said. “It’s about encouraging more students to come and finish.”

The bill only offers free tuition to full-time students because students tend to be more successful when school is the main thing they do.

“If we’re looking at robbing Peter to pay Paul, that’s not the best way to fund it.” — Carole Goldsmith

The goal of the bill is to address California’s estimated shortage of 1 million college-educated workers needed to sustain the state’s workforce. “It’s in our economic interest to get as much of our population through higher education as possible,” Oakley said.

California is following in the footsteps of other states which have enacted similar promise programs with great success.

Fresno City College President Carole Goldsmith applauded the bill as a “game-changer” but cautioned that as of now it amounts to a “concept paper” rather than a done deal.  She also is concerned about the lack of a new funding source.

“If we’re looking at robbing Peter to pay Paul, that’s not the best way to fund it,” she said.

But even with additional funding approved, there may be a capacity problem in accepting additional students from the fee waiver she said. It’s questionable whether the school has enough space to accommodate the additional students and whether it can get enough instructors to teach them. Because Fresno is low-income, it can be hard to attract faculty, Goldsmith said.

Fresno City College has over 33,000 students, about 18,000 of which are full-time.

Goldsmith wishes legislators would fix the inequity in per-student funding in the state. She said that while K-12 gets close to $12,000 per student and California State University gets $15,000, community colleges get less than $8,000.

Jennifer Hamilton, vice president of instruction at Modesto Junior College, said officials at the school have concerns about the Promise program requirement that participating community colleges must offer federal student loans. Currently, MJC doesn’t offer them out of concern about overburdening its mostly low-income students with debt. Students are instead steered toward grants.

The free tuition offer isn’t as much of an attraction as you might think for the campus because 85 percent of its 19,500 students already receive tuition waivers because they are low-income.

Supporters of Assembly Bill 19 hope the new program will encourage more students to go directly from high school into community college and finish in two years with an associate degree that will enable them to jump into a job or transfer to a four-year school.

“What’s key about this is the ability to enroll students who would otherwise not be going to college,” said Assemblyman Miguel Santiago, D-Los Angeles, who authored Assembly Bill 19. “This is about student success and the ability to be affordable in the long run.”

 


  • Jack Beresford

    A good analysis of this important opportunity for CA. I’m guessing some of the low-income students in Fresno might really benefit from free tuition, in spite of capacity issues.

  • Eric Rata

    The way this effort is being marketed by the State government is “free college for a year”, which is misleading in my opinion, and in my experience. What the article does not mention is the additional costs that make college an expensive effort — especially textbooks. While tuition waivers are fantastic and do save full-time students around $1,100 over the course of 2 semesters, the books can be just as expensive and there are very few book grants offered to the general student body. Many community college students are awarded fee waivers already, but if the State really wants to make an impact on a wider spectrum of students, I would personally like to see more resources directed into grants for books and other course related materials.

  • gimmemymoney

    So if a student starts with 12 units as to qualify for the “Free” tuition, what happens if he/she drops a class or two?

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