California Lawmakers OK Free Year of Community College

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – Seeking new recruitment tools to stem declining enrollment, California lawmakers on Wednesday approved a measure to give full-time students a tuition-free year of community college.

Under Assembly Bill 19, first-time students at California’s 114 community colleges would have their tuition waived for a year, regardless of income.

The bill’s author, Assemblyman Miguel Santiago, D-Los Angeles, says the state’s workforce will face a shortage of 1 million college-educated people by 2025, and that his proposal will spark a “college-going culture.” According to state data, nearly half of California’s community colleges are seeing decreased enrollment this year.

Prior to being elected to the Assembly in 2014, Santiago was president of the Los Angeles Community College District.

“Providing one year of free community college to all first-time, full-time students can expand access to financial aid, promote equity, increase enrollment, help improve academic performance, and boost college completion rates,” Santiago said in a statement.

Santiago’s bill received bipartisan support, clearing the Assembly 61-16. The measure advances to Gov. Jerry Brown, who has 30 days to sign or veto it.

Officials estimate waiving the $46 per credit fee for all first-time students could cost up to $31 million annually, paid for out of the state’s general fund.

The proposal mirrors similar tuition-free programs in Oregon and Tennessee. The city of San Francisco has also announced it will waive tuition fees for residents attending City College of San Francisco.

Already having the cheapest tuition rates in the nation, California also offers a variety of financial aid programs to community college students. The California Promise Grant provides tuition waivers to low-income students, homeless students, and surviving spouses or children of fallen law enforcement and military veterans.

Santiago’s bill was introduced in March by Assembly Democrats along with a series of education proposals coined “Degrees Not Debt.” The ambitious funding package also called for $1.5 billion per year to fund new scholarships for University of California and California State University students.

Most of the Democrats’ package, including a proposed 1 percent tax on millionaires intended to eliminate tuition at all state community colleges and universities, failed to gain momentum in the Legislature.

Co-author Assemblyman David Chiu, D-San Francisco, said the bill is critical in helping students in his district that are struggling with food and housing challenges.

“Financial challenges should not keep low-income Californians from pursuing better futures – all students deserve and affordable college education,” Chiu said in a statement.

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