Free college for some

California legislation to guarantee two free semesters to first-time community college students hangs on budget talks

The city of Sacramento is on the sidelines of a statewide push to offer free tuition to first-time community college students.

Starting this fall, all new, full-time students at Lake Tahoe Community College will pay no tuition for their first year thanks to the school’s involvement in a “college promise” campaign that Sacramento-area cities such as Rancho Cordova and West Sacramento have also joined.

In October, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law Assembly Bill 19, which forgoes tuition fees to all first-year, first-time California community college students. The allocation of state budget funding, which is set to be finalized this month, will determine whether or not AB 19 is implemented for the 2018-19 school year or thereafter.

Thanks to an influx of fundraising dollars, LTCC is forging ahead with its free-tuition promise no matter what happens with the state budget. Diane Lewis, a spokesperson for the South Lake Tahoe college, said recent high school graduates and middle-class individuals weighing the costs and benefits of attending college stand to gain the most from the program, but so do older adults looking for upward mobility or a move into a new career.

“You don’t have to be a recent high school graduate to take advantage of this,” Lewis said. “If you graduated high school 20 years ago, had kids and never made your way to college, you can now and it’ll be free. This is for adult learners, and there are plenty of them that are stuck.”

More than a dozen states have created their own community college promise programs. Forty-two cities up and down California, from metropoles such as San Francisco and Los Angeles to smaller communities like Rancho Cordova and West Sacramento, are offering a tuition-free first-year. Recent high school grads from the latter cities will be granted two free semesters at Folsom Lake College and Sacramento City College—but residents living in the state capital won’t qualify. That’s because the Sacramento City Council hasn’t joined a nationwide campaign that leverages public dollars for the higher education of local youth.

Los Rios Community College District spokesman Gabe Ross acknowledged that Sacramento is one of the most notable California cities without a community college promise, though all the colleges represented by his district would be covered by the legislative promise following approval of the state budget, which occurred last week.

There is no straightforward way to fund a community college promise program. Some programs, like the one in West Sacramento, are funded through city dollars. Rancho Cordova’s started with $100,000 in public funds and is now seeking private sector money. LTCC’s promise program is partially funded through donations.

Ross and Lewis both foresee these promises being extended to second-year students or toward textbook and transportation costs once AB 19 funding is locked down.

“Our goal is to stack all these different resources so that students can obtain a transferable degree without paying a dime,” Ross said.

Although a year of free tuition is a step in the right direction, there are still too many obstacles between most Californians and a good education, Ross noted.

“There are still absolutely barriers beyond tuition, whether it be textbook or transportation costs,” Ross said. “There are other costs associated with going to college that are indirect—you’re not writing checks to the college but time that’s spent not working or with your family impacts your ability to attend.”

Currently, California residents pay $46 per unit. Students need to enroll in 12 units to obtain full-time status, costing $552 a semester. According to the California Community Colleges chancellor’s office, nearly half of all California community college students rely on the California Community College Promise Grant, formerly known as the BOG fee waiver, which waives tuition costs for those who meet financial criteria.

Gov. Brown proposed $46 million in funding for AB 19 in his 2018-19 May budget revision. The chancellor’s office estimates a cost of $31 million annually to waive enrollment fees for first-time students, but acknowledges that additional funding will be needed as more students participate in the program.