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What California's Free Tuition Programs Can Teach The Nation

Students walk on a bridge from a tower that says "Glendale College."
Glendale Community College, before the coronavirus crisis. (Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/LAist)
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Listen: What California's Free Tuition Programs Can Teach The Nation

California Community Colleges offer free tuition to more students than any other higher education system in the U.S. More than 1 million of the roughly 2.1 million students in the system's 116 colleges don't pay for classes, mostly the result of fee waivers for low-income students and "college promise" programs.

President Joe Biden is proposing to make two years of community college free for all students, and there are several bills in Congress that could make that reality. As the discussion moves forward, here's what you should know about California's experience with "free" college.

First Of All, College Is Rarely "Free"

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Community college tuition in California has always been waived for very low-income students (e.g., yearly income of $39,300 or less for a family of four). And, in fact, no one paid tuition up until the 1980s.

But in 2017, when the legislature started funding community colleges to provide free tuition for other students through promise programs, some headlines hailed it as free college. Many say the same about Biden's plan.

Let's be clear: It's not free college. It's free tuition. And, especially in California, there's a big difference.

"Tuition, particularly in California, is only a fraction of the cost of attending college," said California Community Colleges Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley. "Transportation, books, not being able to work full time — that's the true cost of college." And let's not forget housing, for many, the costliest piece.

Tuition alone, at $46 per unit, costs full-time community college students around $600 per semester. While that alone is a significant amount of money for many low-income students, the figure is dwarfed by all the other costs of studying, and living while studying — often called the "total cost of attendance."

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East Los Angeles Community College estimates the cost of attendance for California residents for the 2021-22 school year at $15,719 for students living with their parents or other relatives, and $24,377 for students paying rent on their own. Other community colleges in our area make similar estimates.

Some students get grants and scholarships to help pay these costs, but California's financial aid system is not especially generous to community college students, something state education leaders are now hoping to change.

Despite being a fraction of overall college costs, Chancellor Oakley says the message of free tuition is powerful.

"Particularly for families who don't have experience navigating college, that's the first thing that they think about, how am I going to afford the tuition?" he said. "Removing that barrier … opens the door to those students and opens the door to a conversation about a myriad of support services that are there to help the student not only get into college, but then succeed in college."

Promise Programs Are Not Just About Free Tuition

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Community colleges that get state funds to implement promise programs can use the money in a variety of ways to increase access to college and improve outcomes, especially for students who are underrepresented in higher education, including African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, and foster youth, among others. Colleges don't have to use the money to waive tuition.

Still, most promise programs do offer free tuition, for one or two years. Some also offer other financial and material support, like money for textbooks, bus passes, and food vouchers.

Many promise programs also include workshops to help students transition into college, and individualized counseling to help students stay on track to earn an associate degree or career technical certificate, or to transfer to a 4-year university.

Some colleges, including Long Beach City College, also use state promise funding to do outreach to local high school students, and to help them apply for college and financial aid.

LBCC's Dean of Equity, Sonia De La Torre-Iniguez, said the school partners with 41 local high schools to "cultivate college-going mindsets" in students early on, prioritizing schools that have large numbers of students of color. The goal is to broaden access to college, the work of which, De La Torre-Iniguez says, "starts well before the student's first semester at Long Beach City College."

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Image from Zoom of Allison Huff, a student who recently graduated with her associate degree from Orange Coast College, in a blue t-shirt in her home.
Allison Cuff
(Screenshot via Zoom)
  • Allison Cuff, 40, had her tuition waived at Orange Coast College for the entire eight years it took her to finish up an associate degree and the credits needed to transfer to a four-year university.

  • For most of that time, she's had to work full-time, "and a side job," to be able to support herself and her three children.

But that's only because I live in affordable housing, otherwise I wouldn't be able to rent.
— Allison Huff

Who Doesn't Get Free Tuition

The state grant that waives community college tuition for very low-income students has very few restrictions, and can be used at any of the state's community colleges, regardless of whether the student is full- or part-time. However, promise programs, which are generally offered to students of all income levels, vary from college to college in terms of requirements.

Some promise programs only accept graduates from local high schools, and some require a minimum high school GPA, usually a 2.0.

A few colleges don't offer promise programs at all. And some, including the two colleges that make up the San Bernardino Community College District, have suspended their promise programs because of COVID-19-related budget cuts.

Who else is left out of college promise programs?

More than half of the programs identified in a February 2020 study don't accept students who have been out of high school for a while.

Almost all promise programs limit participation to full-time students, and to students who would be attending college for the first time (with the exception of dual enrollment classes taken during high school). These two requirements are written into the California College Promise legislation.

Some observers, including Cecilia Rios-Aguilar, professor at UCLA's School of Education and Information Studies, worry that these requirements exclude some of the neediest students. Overall, around two-thirds of community college students attend part-time. "That should guide us to think differently about these restrictions," Rios-Aguilar said.

Students often have to work while studying, and they may have other commitments, like caregiving, that constrain their time, she said.

Victoria Lum smiles for the camera in glasses and a flowery collared shirt.
Victoria Lum
(Courtesy: Victoria Lum)
  • Victoria Lum, 19, was wooed to Long Beach City College by the promise of free tuition. But she says she has also really benefited from the non-financial support of the school's promise program, including its summer bridge program.

Transitioning from high school to college is, like, a lot. So this was a great program for me to figure out, 'oh, this is when things are due, these are the resources I can use.'
— Victoria Lum

"We want community college students to think about college as the priority in their lives," Rios-Aguilar said, "and it's not happening, and that's just the reality."

Additionally, there are 5.7 million Californians who took some college classes earlier in life (and therefore don't qualify for most college promise programs) but didn't get a degree.

Given the economic devastation wrought by COVID-19, Chancellor Oakley said it could be time to revisit college promise requirements.

"I think there is a legitimate question to be asked whether we should be providing additional incentives to students who may not be low-income, but who are struggling to recover from the pandemic and have to work," he said.

Finally, because of the formula that the state uses to allocate money for promise programs, the bulk of funding actually goes to colleges with higher-income students.

What Does Free College Accomplish?

California promise programs do seem to be increasing enrollment for first-time students, according to a recent analysis by graduate students at UCLA's Luskin School of Public Affairs.

They found an approximately 10% increase in first-time student enrollment at community colleges with promise programs, and an even greater impact for students traditionally underrepresented in higher education. They also found that the biggest enrollment increases for first-time students were in promise programs whose sole offering is free tuition and fees.

Still, multiple factors could be driving these increases, the study noted, including students who might have otherwise gone to a four-year university if not for the allure of free tuition.

The impact of promise programs on other community college goals, like increasing transfers to four-year universities, is still largely unknown because most programs are just a few years old. Currently, just 19% of community college students who intend to transfer to a four-year university do so within four years, and 28% within six years, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.

To help address this problem, Long Beach City College recently launched Promise 2.0, which offers two years free tuition plus guaranteed transfer to Cal State Long Beach for certain majors, as long as students complete the established coursework and other requirements.

Students walk across a field in red robes and multi-colored stoles and leis during Pasadena City College commencement 2019.
Pasadena City College 2019 commencement.
(Courtesy: Pasadena City College)

What Could National Free Tuition Mean For California?

It depends on which, if any, of the free tuition bills gets through Congress. What state leaders definitely don't want is for California to get less federal funding than other states that charge more for tuition. That could happen if the government matches the cost of tuition in each state rather than allocating funding based on average tuition nationwide.

"Since California has the lowest tuition in the country, we wouldn't want to see our students be penalized because our state invests more money in our system," Chancellor Oakley said.

Oakley would also want federal tuition funding to come with enough flexibility to allow states to use the money to best serve their students, while still holding them accountable for positive outcomes. He said he'd like to use federal dollars for supplemental instruction and emergency aid to minimize "all the things that we know very, very well prevent low-income students from succeeding."

Jessica Thompson, associate vice president for The Institute for College Access and Success, cheered Biden's plan to also provide two years of subsidized tuition at four-year universities designated as "minority-serving institutions," which would include many of the California State University campuses as well as some University of California campuses.

If two years of free tuition becomes reality along with Biden's plan to increase Pell Grants for low-income students, Thompson said we'd be getting much closer to what she calls the "promised land," where most students could get a debt-free college degree.

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