Free First Year at Community Colleges

Photo+by+Jonathan+Daniels.++Royalty+free+via+Unsplash.com.
Photo by Jonathan Daniels.  Royalty free via Unsplash.com.

Photo by Jonathan Daniels. Royalty free via Unsplash.com.

Photo by Jonathan Daniels. Royalty free via Unsplash.com.

Dasha Wright, Staff Writer

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Assemblyman Miguel Santiago wants to start working towards waiving fees for the first year of community college for all first-time students. “It’s an incentive that would draw in new students who wouldn’t otherwise enroll,” Santiago said. “Community college changed my life. It gave me choices and opportunities and it opened doors…I know free community college will change the lives of Californians.” He submitted Assembly Bill 19 (AB19) to the California Assembly and, on Friday, October 13, Governor Jerry Brown signed it.

The state of California already offers fee waivers for students with low income and some community college districts report that a substantial percentage of students that are eligible for the waiver don’t apply. Administration has put its focus on students with demonstrable financial hardship. Max Lubin is the CEO of Rise, a community organization that encourages people to eliminate college tuition, protect students from debt and invest in public colleges and universities, according to their webpage, carise.org. He said, “People want to go to college but don’t see themselves pursuing college because of the cost.” College costs have become a political flashpoint since students debts have climbed over $1 trillion nationwide.

California has become the latest state to reduce costs of public college education. AB19 will provide a free year at 114 community colleges for California residents who are in their first year and enrolled for full time. California has one of the biggest community college systems in the country and it is already one of the most affordable, charging only $46 per credit, or about $1,100 a year for part-time students. The state has minimized the per credit fee for low income students since 1986, charging just $5. Around 43% of the 2.3 million students benefited from that program during the 2015-2016 school year.

New legislation expands the waiver to all students regardless of income for the first year. An additional 19,000 students could qualify, states an estimate from the Community College Chancellor’s. While it is a boon to potential students, this could cost the state over $30 million a year. Even with this waiver, classes will not be completely free for the students. They’ll still be charged with additional fees by the colleges for student activities, internet use, health care, etc. This new law hopes to increase the number of students that enroll full-time, and the number of people who earn a degree that prepares them for in-demand jobs. “We’re trying to increase student success. If you enroll full-time, the success rate is much higher than if you’re part-time,” said Santiago.

Earlier in this year San Francisco approved a more generous tuition-free program that makes community college courses free for all residents. They don’t need to be new students or enrolled full time. This will offer students who are less fortunate additional money to pay for their other expenses.  Rhode island also has a tuition-free scholarship that is also limited to new students. Tuition in New York was made free at community, and four year schools, but excludes wealthy families who earn more than $125,000 per year. The free community college program could start during the 2018-2019 school year if lawmakers include funding for it in next year’s budget, which needs to be approved by June in 2018.

In the last three decades more than five million low-income California residents have already received tuition waivers through a the Board of Governors Fee Waiver program.

The state of California has a shortage of college educated workers.  “When lawmakers focus only on tuition and not living costs, she added, they’re ignoring some of the barriers that can get in the way of a student earning a diploma.” said Debbie Cochrane, vice president of the Oakland-based Institute for College Access and Success. She said that she would like to see the state direct more money toward grants to help students cover costs beyond just tuition, such as housing, transportation and textbooks.

Ron Galatolo, chancellor of the San Mateo County Community College District, agreed. “While AB 19 is a good start, and will benefit many California students, it does not take into account many of the ‘life cost’ issues that create barriers for our students,” he said.

The law doesn’t have a funding mechanism yet. Backers from the bill are saying negotiations to fund AB 19 with additional state money will begin in early 2018 for part of the 2018-2019 budget process. Everything should be figured out as the conversations continue. The new program is called the California College Promise. In order for the bill to go into full effect it needs money. “All of our conversations with the governor’s office have been very positive,” said a staffer for Assemblyman Santiago’s office.  “We’re hopeful and we also know we need to work through the budget process to ensure that this is funded.”  

Eligible students will need to commit at least 12 units a semester, be a resident of California, and fill out and submit a free application for federal student aid, or a California dream application. These programs were designed to not only make college affordable but also provide students with additional guidance and mentoring to improve their chances of earning a degree.

“It really is about creating the environment and alignment that will help students finish college,” said California Community Colleges Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley. Individual community colleges are not automatically eligible for additional funding. The law requires leaders of a given community college to take steps that include partnering with local school districts to prepare students for college life and responsibilities. Community college leaders have to take steps to ensure that students apply for need-based financial aid, and also improve their own methods of placing students into their appropriate classes.

In 2015 President Barack Obama proposed the idea of two years of tuition free college for eligible students. This idea came from the “Tennessee Promise” and California’s “Long Beach Promise” (both of which provide two years free to whomever is eligible). Obama’s proposal has sparked an extensive debate across the nation on college access and affordability.  By creating a college-going culture throughout California, this measure will expand access to financial aid, promote equity, increase enrollment, help improve academic performance, and boost completion rates. Tennessee Promise students are required to file a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

 

Sources:

Mason, Melanie. “New Law Puts California on Path to Offering First Year Free at Community Colleges.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 13 Oct. 2017, 3:40 PM, www.latimes.com/politics/essential/la-pol-ca-essential-politics-updates-new-law-will-put-california-on-path-to-1507933730-htmlstory.html.

 

Lobosco, Katie. “California Will Make One Year at Community Colleges Free.” CNNMoney, Cable News Network, 16 Oct. 2017, 3:10PM, money.cnn.com/2017/10/16/pf/college/california-free-community-college/index.html.

 

DeRuy, Emily. “First Year of Community College Could Soon Be Free in California.” The Mercury News, The Mercury News, 19 Sept. 2017, 6:00AM, www.mercurynews.com/2017/09/19/first-year-of-community-college-could-soon-be-free-in-california/.

 

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