AB 19 — Another Step in California’s Promise to Community College Students

By Eloy Ortiz Oakley
Chancellor, California Community Colleges

FREE is a word that generates several emotions. It creates excitement, happiness, surprise and sometimes even skepticism. “Wow, it’s going to be free?” people ask. Because everyone knows what “free” means: you don’t have to pay; you’re guaranteed something for nothing. “Free” is almost always a good thing!

So when Gov. Jerry Brown signed AB 19 by Assemblymember Miguel Santiago (D-Los Angeles), which established the California College Promise and will allow colleges to make the first year tuition free for first-time, full-time California community college students — students, parents and the public cheered. I join them in those cheers. And as we celebrate we should recognize that the struggle to lower the full cost of attending college has only scratched the surface. Because attending a California community college is still far from free.

Every day, students on our 114 campuses are preparing for what California needs — now and for the future. They are preparing to transfer to four-year institutions; they are earning industry-valued certificates and associate degrees; and they preparing for jobs that are available right now. The California Community Colleges is the largest institution of higher learning in the United States, serving 2.1 million students. It’s a big job — and requires a big commitment — and Governor Brown’s approval of AB 19 reiterates that commitment to the students throughout California who are counting on us for the quality education they seek.

But AB 19 is not the only, nor even the first, promise our state has made to students. Because even before this new law, California was a national leader in the College Promise movement. For more than 30 years, the California Community Colleges system has waived tuition for students who cannot afford it, with about 1 million current students receiving assistance under what is the most expansive free tuition program offered by any state. Formerly known as the Board of Governors Fee Waiver, the program's name is being changed to the California College Promise Grant. Through this benefit and other forms of state and federal student financial aid, we have been working hard to provide our students with the funds they need to take the courses we offer.

Communities are pitching in by establishing local College Promise partnerships, which work to foster a healthy college-going culture through better alignment with K-12 schools and by raising much-needed funds from generous donors to provide additional financial help, funds that can be used for more than tuition. Because if you are going to make a real promise to help students with the financial demands of college, you must recognize that college affordability extends well beyond tuition. In some regions of the state, the cost of attending community college for some students exceeds the cost of attending a California State University or University of California campus because of the way the our Cal Grant system is configured.

Going to college includes costs such as textbooks, transportation (all of our students commute from somewhere), food and housing. Many of the community-led fundraising efforts help with these types of expenses. And when AB 19 is fully funded, individual campuses that have raised funds can choose how to use them in addition to what students will be eligible for through the new law. For instance, campus private funds could be used to help fund the second-year tuition, or for books, supplies or other expenses. Because it will take everyone’s help — even with this new law — to provide the financial help our students need.

To be clear: AB 19 has not been funded yet, and colleges will have to implement a series of student success strategies to qualify for the funding that we expect will be included in the governor’s January budget proposal.

The chance to make community colleges tuition free for first-time, full-time students is a big step forward. It means California, once again, is leading the country in recognizing the importance of public higher education. But more work remains to be done to address the cost of college attendance and ensure that a new generation of Californians can realize the California Dream.