Free college is not a new idea in California. But some community colleges, faced with declining enrollment, are waiving fees for more students than ever and adding perks like free textbooks, meals and transportation.
Kathleen Coronado always assumed she would attend a four-year college right after high school.
But when the coronavirus pandemic hit and she was forced to learn online, Coronado saw her motivation dwindle. So does his confidence in his ability to afford the cost of going to college.
“COVID really stopped that for me,” Coronado said. “It made me lose some of my motivation.”
Then, early in her senior year, she learned that Modesto Junior College would be waiving her tuition under its “Free for Me” program. She decided to apply and started first grade this month.
A number of California community colleges — including Modesto Junior College and several campuses in the Peralta Community College district — rely on students like Coronado to help boost enrollment, through programs that rely on aid. federal pandemic to waive tuition for new and continuing students. coming in the fall. They hope to reverse a downward trend in enrollment during the pandemic.
Free college isn’t a new idea in California: The state’s Promise program offers full-time students at select universities scholarships to help cover tuition, and students with low enough income can also apply. waiver of their fees.
But unlike the Promise program, which blocks part-time students, these new efforts on individual campuses come with lower barriers to entry, making it easier for students to qualify. At Modesto Junior College and Laney College in Oakland, for example, there is no minimum number of units a student must enroll in. And some campuses go beyond tuition, helping students with expenses like food, technology, and school supplies.
Only 17 of California’s 116 community colleges have seen an increase in enrollment since fall 2020, according to a recent analysis by CalMatters.
Enrollment at Laney College decreased by 19% between the 2018-2019 and 2021-2022 academic years. At Modesto Junior College, enrollment has declined among male students and those from “underserved populations” during the pandemic, spokeswoman Jeanette Fontana said. But overall, enrollment has started to rebound since the college launched Free for Me last spring, she said.
“Money is a big incentive,” said Zachariah Wooden, vice president of legislative affairs for the California Community Colleges Student Senate. “It’s not like they get paid to take classes, but it’s more, you know, ‘I can save money by taking classes in the fall semester.'”
The pandemic has created a number of financial challenges for students in California. More than half experienced a drop in income, while around a quarter of students had to spend more money on books and school supplies.
About 60% of students now expect to graduate later than expected, reports the Institute for College Access & Success. And difficulties in meeting basic needs are particularly pronounced among black and Latino students, more than half of whom reported being more food insecure.
“Since we’re all in this together and we’ve all been affected in some way, it’s not that embarrassing to admit that I need financial help,” said Stephanie Barajas, Modesto Junior College student and student government secretary. “We have so many low-income students. So I always feel comfortable having all the help there is.
At $46 per unit, California already has the cheapest community college tuition in the country.
But tuition and fees are only about 5% of costs for community college students living off-campus, reports the Institute for College Access & Success.
“People are really moving towards this, like free college, and for them that means free tuition and tuition,” said Manny Rodriguez, California director of policy and advocacy at the Institute for College Access & Success.
Colleges, however, must also consider the cost of housing, books and other supplies that can push students financially over the edge, according to Rodriguez and other advocates and researchers.
That’s the idea behind Laney College’s Fall is Free program, which also covers laptops, free lunches, bus passes, healthcare costs and school supplies ranging from standard textbooks to knife kits. for culinary arts students.
“If you have someone going to school in a high cost of living area, like East Bay and Oakland, you also have the cost of living. And add to that the likelihood that employment … if it has to be reduced to meet college time requirements, will also reduce income,” said Laney College President Rudy Besikof. “So we really try to meet the students where they are.”
Merritt College, also located in the Peralta Community College district, offers students a $500 housing voucher, as well as free breakfast and parking. Berkeley City College, whose program does not help with meals or school supplies, is still waiving several tuition fees, including health center fees and the cost of local public transportation for those who enroll in more of six units. Another college in the district, the College of Alameda, does not waive tuition, but simply gives students $500 upon enrollment.
Mazin Seed, student body president at Berkeley City College, will take advantage of the program and is happy to save on transportation. The tuition waiver, he said, will help him save money to transfer to a four-year university.
“The school is helping students get back to school, which is a good thing, especially after the last two years when a lot of people had to take a break from school,” Seed said.
Through its Free for Me program, Laney College has seen its student body grow by 5,250, says vice president of instruction Becky Opsata. “It’s very exciting to not have another quarter of declining enrollment,” she said.
Modesto College increased enrollment by about 8% in the last spring semester when tuition was waived, said President Santanu Bandyopadhyay, which he described as swimming “against the tide.”
The campus program — along with the COVID-19 vaccination incentives — cost the college more than $5 million last spring, but only covers tuition and doesn’t help with other tuition. While Bandyopadhyay thinks other financial barriers should also be addressed, he said waiving tuition fees alone still removes a key psychological barrier for students who might otherwise be intimidated into applying to college.
“If as a student I don’t even know the cost of going to college and I think if I go to college I don’t know how much it costs, then the cost is my biggest barrier,” Bandyopadhyay said.
The lack of long-term funding for these programs is a concern, however, said Denise Castro, policy analyst at The Education Trust-West.
“There needs to be a historic investment in community colleges…because we know that a significant number of students of color (and) low-income students attend our community college system,” Castro said, noting that programs like these should be expanded to “really tackle college affordability” and “ensure there is a pathway for students” to continue their education.
COVID relief funding supporting programs in the Peralta Community College district is expected to run out by the end of the fall semester. Campus officials aren’t sure if they’ll have enough money to extend the program through the spring, Besikof said.
Imperial Valley College faced a similar challenge this fall, campus spokeswoman Elizabeth Espinoza said. The college had waived tuition in the 2021-2022 academic year, but had to discontinue it as the money ran out.
They now offer a lite version of the program, which grants students emergency scholarships based on need.
With so many students learning online in the wake of the pandemic, publicizing programs like Free for Me can also be difficult, Barajas said. Thanks to the program, she quit her full-time job and can now work as a part-time after-school teacher, giving her . more time to focus on their studies. She is enrolled as a full-time student and plans to transfer in about a year.
“I was able to learn about all the different programs and resources we have. And that was just because I signed up for student government,” Barajas said. “Otherwise I still wouldn’t know.”
Still, students who discovered Free for Me said they were grateful.
Before his fall tuition disappeared — and a Modesto Junior College Basic Needs Program grant helped pay his rent — Modesto Junior College out-of-state student Samuel Ramos worked at In-N-Out every day from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m., taking orders, making fries, and cleaning up. Now he’s relieved to focus on his studies and a hopeful transfer to UCLA.
“I feel like a kid again,” Ramos said.