New state program makes tuition free for first year community college students

Incoming Oakland community college students will soon be able to enroll for free for their first year following the signing of Assembly Bill 19, a law establishing the California College Promise. This initiative includes an expansion of the existing fee waiver program, which until now has only been accessible for extremely low-income students.

The legislation requires that recipients be new students, California residents, and enrolled in classes full-time, meaning with a course load of at least 12 credits. Part-time and returning students are not eligible for the program, which is expected to go into effect for the 2018-19 school year.

Bernard McCune, the deputy chief of post-secondary readiness for Oakland public schools, praised the initiative for its inclusiveness and said it is likely to benefit residents throughout the city. “Part of the reason free tuition is so important is it gives the message to students and parents that they can do it,” he said.

“Some families are just on that margin” of qualifying for financial aid programs, McCune added, saying that once living expenses and transportation are taken into account, the costs can be much higher than just the tuition. For families which otherwise might not be able to afford community college, he said, “this helps tremendously.”

According to the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office, around 20,000 students are likely to benefit statewide. Currently, tuition for the 2.1 million community college students in California is roughly $1,100 per academic year. The program would allow community colleges to waive the per-credit free of $46 for a student’s first year. The students would then be eligible to apply for grants and other scholarships to help pay for subsequent semesters.

AB 19 does not stipulate an income requirement, but students will still need to complete a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) or California Dream Act application to qualify. In order for a college to be eligible for the California College Promise it must meet certain criteria. These requirements include establishing an early commitment to college program with district schools, and not relying on standardized tests for admission. Additionally it is up to each community college administration to decide if they want to participate in the program.

Laney College first year student Diane Arisbek, who graduated from Skyline High School, said that she received a Pell Grant, a state-funded grant for low-income and high-need students, to cover a portion of her tuition expenses. “The concept of being able to come to school for free for a whole year is awesome,” she said as she ate lunch in the Laney courtyard.

Arisbek felt that the new legislation was a good starting point for making college more accessible, but that there is room to do more. “If you look at other countries that are a little more progressive than we are, they take the tuition out of taxpayers’ money,” she said. “But it’s better than nothing.”

According to financial aid director Dave Nguyen, about two thirds of students enrolled in the Peralta Colleges—the community college system for Oakland, Alameda and Berkeley—receive some form of financial aid. About 54 percent of those students qualify for the Board of Governors Fee Waiver (BOG). This waives the per class fee of $46 for extremely low-income students, or students whose families receive government assistance such as social security, food stamps or general assistance.

2015-2016 Peralta Community College District Financial Aid Awards
Infogram

Students can also qualify for the waiver through a financial aid application, Nguyen said. He advises all students to fill out the FAFSA form, which also acts as an application for state-based financial aid options such as Pell Grants and Cal Grants.

Pell Grants are entirely need-based, and all California students who qualify receive them. This year qualifying students can receive up to $5,920 toward their tuition, fees and living expenses, Nguyen said. For Cal Grants, a competitive application process takes into account the student’s grades as well as their financial need. Nguyen said that a formula is used to determine a score, and only those with who have the highest scores are selected. About 95 percent of Peralta district students who receive a Cal Grant will also be Pell Grant recipients.

Nguyen encourages students to apply for “any free money that they can get their hands on,” as grants and scholarships do not have to be repaid after graduation, the way loans do.

Students eligible for the California College Promise will still need to apply for grants and student loans in order to cover their living expenses, which Nguyen says can be as much as $20,000 per school year for a student who is financially independent from their family.

According to Paul Feist, vice chancellor for communications for California Community Colleges, the new system would not replace existing grant and scholarship programs. The program is an extension of the waiver program to all new students that will lower the barrier to entry and make it easier for students to complete a two-year degree by enrolling full time. Feist said full time enrollment is preferable “because research shows that when students enroll full time that the chances of persistence and completion are higher.”

In 2016, the most recent year with available data, 64 percent of OUSD graduates enrolled in a post-secondary education program. Of those students, nearly one-third enrolled at a two-year college. According to Oakland’s McCune, “a number of our students actually go to community college as a first stop” before continuing on to four-year institutions, as a way to make college more affordable.

David Silver, the director of education for Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, works closely with Oakland Promise, an initiative between the city, the school district, and Peralta Colleges to increase the number of Oakland students going to college. Silver said he believes that with California College Promise, the number of students is “going to dramatically increase.”

Silver said that the benefits of these programs are as much about expectations of the community as they are financial. “Part of Oakland Promise is shifting mentalities and changing expectations so everyone thinks they’re going to college,” said Silver. “I’m so excited that this opportunity will be provided for Oakland residents.”

The new state initiative is estimated to cost the state between $30 and 50 million, which will not be funded until the 2018 budget is submitted by Governor Brown in January.

Analysts from the California Department of Finance opposed AB 19. A bill analysis submitted by department officials in July stated that the large price tag would “reduce overall funding for community college districts,” by extending  financial aid to students who did not have demonstrated financial need. They noted the lack of tuition revenue and the added student enrollment would put pressure on the Proposition 98 General Fund, which funds K-12 schools and community colleges in California. According to the document, close to half of the community college students statewide already benefit from a student fee waiver.

Walking across Laney’s campus, Sky Lowe, a first-year student studying computer science, exclaimed the tuition waiver “should have already been done!”

“It’s so much more helpful” when someone who has just graduated from high school doesn’t have to worry about going into debt in addition to figuring out adulthood, he said.

Lowe, who is in the Gateway to College program—an alternative education partnership between Alameda County schools and Laney College for students to complete high school credits while taking college courses—says that not being responsible for tuition has encouraged him to seek higher education. “They offered it for free and I was like, ‘Why not?’” he said. “I want to continue my education and become a better person in society.”

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