The Promise of California’s “Free College” Bill

California Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation today (AB 19 from Assemblymember Santiago) that is widely reported to make community college tuition free for Californians. If fully funded by the legislature, the bill would provide dollars sufficient to cover tuition for first-time, full-time students who do not qualify for the California College Promise Grant (known until last month as the Board of Governors Fee Waiver), which has long fully covered community college tuition for students with demonstrated financial need.

But the bill actually provides much broader and more meaningful flexibility to colleges than is widely understood. The bill does not require colleges to eliminate tuition for these additional students, but instead allocates money to colleges to spend in ways that will increase college access and success and decrease inequities in which students get to and through college. Community colleges “may” use funds to cover tuition for those students who don’t already benefit from the fee waiver, but they don’t have to, and that is a good thing.

To qualify for the new funds, colleges must agree to implement certain student-oriented reforms, such as partnering with local school districts to foster college awareness among students before they leave high school, using evidence-based practices to assess students’ academic readiness, creating guided pathways to help students complete programs and degrees without getting lost, and ensuring students’ access to all the need-based financial resources available to them. 

These details are important, because a meaningful promise to increase college access, affordability, and success for California’s students has to address more than just tuition. College enrollment means little if students don’t know which courses to take or can’t get into them, if they’re stuck in unnecessary developmental coursework, or if they can’t afford their textbooks or transportation to campus. These are very real obstacles that hold students back from succeeding in college even when tuition is free. And the structure of AB 19 allows future funding to be used to help students overcome these hurdles. Here are just some of the important ways that colleges could choose to spend funds appropriated for the bill:

  • For low-income students with children, the lack of affordable childcare can be a tremendous obstacle to persisting in college. Money provided under AB 19 could be used to support childcare centers on campuses, or direct aid to low-income parents to help them cover childcare costs.

  • The new funds could be used to provide transportation passes or textbook vouchers for low-income students, better positioning them to get to campus and pass their courses.

  • More than 20 community colleges in California do not offer federal student loans, in part because they don’t feel they have the resources they need to administer the loan program responsibly. Offering federal loans is a requirement for receiving AB 19 funds; these colleges could use these funds to support loan counseling and other efforts that would enable them to reenter the loan program.

With the lowest community college tuition in the country, and an existing financial aid program that covers tuition for low- and middle-income students, challenges outside of tuition are almost certainly bigger determinants of student success at most community colleges in California. Thankfully, the bill Governor Brown signed today allows colleges the choice for how best to support the enrollment and completion of their students.

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