California increases statewide free tuition programs for community colleges

According to a press release from the California Community Colleges (CCC) Chancellor’s Office on March 20, 2017, the CCC’s Board of Governors “approved 14 community college districts in California to participate in the College Promise Innovation Grant Program,” which provides $15 million in funding to expand already existing College Promise programs or to implement College Promise programs in new districts.

The College Promise program was in part influenced by former President Barack Obama’s initiative to provide free higher education for high school graduates. “For every young person willing to work hard, I want two years of college to be as free and universal as high school is today,” said Obama. It was also in part influenced by the changing demands of the United States workforce, which is expected by 2020 to require a postsecondary education for more than 60 percent of U.S. jobs, as per Anthony Carnevale of Georgetown University’s Center of Education and the Workforce. However, the cost of higher education has increased dramatically in the past few decades, becoming less accessible to students of lower and middle income families according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Though California may have one of the largest higher education public systems in the U.S. that provides affordable and quality education, data from College Board still indicates that California has had a 115 percent increase in tuition since the fiscal year of 2004-2005. This tuition increase plateaued after Governor Jerry Brown’s freeze on tuition increase for in-state students years from 2011-2016, but is expected to increase five percent annually starting in 2017.

The College Promise program attempts to address both the monetary and social challenges of higher education by offering funding for students, developing a “college-going culture” and providing non-financial support services. Collectively, the objective of the program is to increase higher education completion rates and create stronger communities. College Promise programs create partnerships between K-12 schools, community college and four-year university segments to provide pathways for students to achieve their educational goals.

California has the largest number College Promise programs of any state in the U.S., with 23 in total including the recent approval of 13 more districts. Long Beach City College (LBCC) had the first College Promise program in California and in part inspired the state to start funding other districts as well.

Carol Ortega, high school program administrator at Long Beach Unified School District, explained how the program works in an interview with the Highlander. She explained that it is a collaborative partnership between LBCC, Long Beach Unified School District (LBUSD) and Long Beach California State University (CSULB) that “allows any student who graduates from any high school of LBUSD can go to LBCC for the first semester for free.”

“They can then get the second semester for free if they maintain a good standing of 2.0 GPA and have completed 12 units,” said Ortega. After two years, the students are eligible to attend CSULB if they are able to achieve the minimum transfer requirement.

The Long Beach program has been successfully running since 2008 with funding from the state through the CCC Chancellor’s Office of about $1.5 million as well as additional funding through fundraising efforts in the community and private sources. “Since the program started, more than 13,000 students have signed up for at least one free semester at LBCC and the number of LBUSD graduates who enrolled at CSULB increased by 71 percent,” stated The Press-Enterprise.

Paul Feist, Vice Chancellor for Communication at the CCC Chancellor’s Office, mentioned in an interview with the Highlander that, “in some cases, the program will cover all fees for students based on a set of criteria for a year or maybe two years. In other cases, public partnerships will provide additional resources to cover things like transportation, books or something else to help students afford college.” There is no direct aid from the federal Department of Education for the College Promise programs, but students are still eligible for Pell Grants and Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to supplement their education costs.

Feist also believes that there’s more than just the financial benefits for students who participate in this program because “there’s really a great value in these partnerships of aligning the K-12 students and districts with higher education, specifically community colleges. It exposes K-12 students from an early age to possibilities of going on to college or community college and transferring to a four-year institution,” said Feist.

Feist also mentioned that all the programs “still really vary in structure from community to community. They tailor to meet the needs of the students and the community in that area. So really there’s kind of a variety of elements that are included in the partnerships.”  

Moreno Valley College started a similar program, called the “First-Year Experience Program” (FYE), in May of 2017 following the approval of the Chancellor’s office. Director of FYE at Moreno Valley, Edward Alvarez, explained the specifics to the Highlander. “Looking at our equity planning, looking at our demographics of our students, we know that we have a high number of students that graduate from high school that don’t continue on to higher education for many different reasons,” said Alvarez.

He explained that this was caused by socioeconomic inequalities of the demographic area that did not allow them the ability to buy books or afford transportation. “The goal of the program is to “remove some of this stress from them. Have them pursue higher education and in an environment where they don’t have to worry about such small issues.” Moreno Valley works in partnership with Moreno Valley Unified School District as well as Val Verde Unified School District and is expected to enroll up to 500 students for the school year of 2017-2018 under FYE.

Alvarez concluded that College Promise programs main intent is to focus on increasing access to higher education for all students by addressing the financial barriers and hopes that it will influence similar tuition free programs for other public higher education institutions as well.

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