New Law Brings Free College to California Students

Some California high school graduates—estimated at just over 34,000 this year—will be able to attend their first year of community college for free, thanks to new statewide legislation and $46 million earmarked to pay for it through 2019.

The new law, known as the “California College Promise,” was authored by California State Assemblymember Miguel Santiago (D-Los Angeles) and provides full-time, first-year students a free year of community college. It joins almost two dozen other similar college “promise” programs across the United States.

When fully implemented, the California College Promise will consolidate and fund several local and municipal “college promise” programs that already exist throughout California, and are currently paid for by private philanthropy and local enterprise, including one specific to Los Angeles Community College (LACC).

Another such program is Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s L.A. College Promise program, which began in August and was previously funded through Garcetti’s “Mayors Fund,” the Los Angeles Community College District and the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce.

For Santiago, who previously served as president of the Los Angeles Community College District Board of Trustees, the issue is a personal one.

“Community college changed my life,” said Santiago, in a November meeting of the California Community Foundation. “It gave me choices and opportunities and it opened doors.I know free community college will change the lives of Californians,” he said.

Currently, it costs about $550 a semester for students to attend community college in the state, not including housing and food expenses.

To receive the free tuition waiver, students must take college-level math and English courses, carry a load of 12 units each semester—the equivalent of 4 classes— and participate in support programs designed to keep them on track to graduate or transfer.

Santiago’s bill was designed to preempt what he describes as an upcoming shortage of nearly 1 million college-educated people in California’s workforce by 2025. State data shows that nearly 50% of community colleges saw decreased enrollment in 2017.

So far, about 750 students have taken advantage of the LACC program this year, according to Jessica Cerda, a counselor at the college.

“Right now it’s like a boutique program, but it’s growing,’’ she said.

Though the first year at LACC has seen some measured success, Cerda said, there is still potential for their program to improve—including bolstering local outreach.

According to Tricia Bryan, a college counselor at Los Feliz’s John Marshall High School, many of the students are unaware of college promise opportunities, primarily because the promise programs are relatively new and because of the challenges specific to Marshall’s student population.

“Largely, our students are first-generation college-bound students whose parents did not go to college,” Bryan said, “so they are not as familiar with,” the programs.

Now that there is a statewide and local push to send more high school graduates to college—with some tuition relief—Bryan said community college is an effective way for students to save money before transferring to complete their studies.

But for those that have already taken advantage of such tuition breaks—in this case the city’s L.A. Promise program—it’s been a game changer.

Daniela Sandoval, 18, of Koreatown said she would not have been able to attend college without such assistance.

Sandoval graduated from the New World Open Academy, located a few miles west of Downtown Los Angeles, last spring and was accepted to Azusa Pacific University—a private Christian college whose tuition and fees hover around $33,000 a year, not including room and board.

“Even with a scholarship from Azusa, I was still $15,000 short and I don’t want to take out loans,’’ she said.

After learning of the city’s program from her guidance counselor, Sandoval now attends LACC and is thriving.

Last fall, she said, she earned a 4.0 GPA and hopes to eventually transfer to Pepperdine University.

According to Sandoval, she has also been relentlessly applying for scholarships to help offset the cost of a private education at Pepperdine.

“Every little bit helps,” she said.

While the state will eventually fund all college promise programs in California—pending final budget approval—administrators in charge of fundraising for the L.A. College Promise program say philanthropic donations to the program will likely continue.

According to Drew Yamanishi, a dean at LACC, one way the school might use that money would be to increase the wrap-around services for students, like discounted transportation and subsidized textbooks.

“The vast majority of community college students coming in their first year are first-generation, low-income, or disadvantaged in one way or another. Putting those wraparound services on top of the free tuition is an important part,” Yamanishi said.

The State’s budget will become final on June 15th.

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