Despite AB 19, California community college still far from free

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When Gov. Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 19 into law in October, students, parents and the public cheered. Authored by Assemblymember Miguel Santiago (D-Los Angeles), AB 19 will allow California community colleges to make the first year tuition-free for first-time, full-time students. At San Bernardino Community College District, we joined those cheers. This new “California Promise” plan is something to celebrate. But even as we celebrate, we must admit that we’ve only begun to scratch the surface. Because attending a California community college is still far from free.

Every day, our students at Crafton Hills College and San Bernardino Valley College, are studying hard and 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 are going for jobs that are available right now.

We are proud to be part of the largest institution of higher learning in the United States, serving 2.1 million students. Here locally, we’re preparing our 21,000 students to become the healthcare professionals who serve our medical needs, the police and firefighters who keep us safe and the workers who fuel our economy. It’s a big job and requires a big commitment, and Governor Brown’s approval of AB 19 reaffirms that commitment to students throughout California 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. Even before this new law, California was a national leader in the college promise movement. For more than 30 years, the California Community College system has waived tuition for students who can afford it the least, with about one million current students receiving assistance under what is the most far-reaching free tuition program offered by any state. Formerly known as the Board of Governors Fee Waiver (BOG 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.

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Here at SBCCD, we’ve been working just as hard to promote local opportunities for financial aid for our students. We’ve been raising much-needed funds from generous local donors to provide additional scholarships and financial help, funds that can be used for more than tuition. For example, with the generous support of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, we’re able to offer eligible local high school graduates the Valley-Bound Commitment, a tuition-free first year at San Bernardino Valley College. Valley-Bound is one of the original “promise” programs in the state. This year marks our tenth anniversary of this commitment, and we are proud of the hundreds of low-income, first-generation students who we’ve helped graduate.

All of our students understand that going to college includes costs such as textbooks, transportation (all of our students commute), school supplies, food, and housing. Many of the special programs on our campus can help with these types of expenses. And, when AB 19 is fully funded, individual colleges 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, philanthropic gifts could be used to help fund the second-year tuition fees, or for books, supplies or other expenses. It will take everyone’s help – even with this new law – to provide the financial assistance our students need.

If policymakers are going to make a real promise to help students earn a college education, we must recognize and break down barriers that go beyond tuition. The majority of our students attend college part-time because they have a financial necessity to work one or more jobs to support themselves and their families. Part-time college students are not eligible for the benefits of AB 19, but they deserve to be. Their academic goals are just as important to them and to the future of our state’s economic prosperity.

We’re not home free yet. Community college districts have not received state funding to implement AB 19. Colleges will have to implement a series of student success strategies to qualify for the funding that we’re optimistic will be approved by the legislature and the governor in the 2018-19 state budget this summer.

But 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. That has been our pledge here at San Bernardino Community College District since 1926. We’re pleased with the new law, but we’re not stopping there. We remain committed to helping our students succeed and furthering the California dream for all of us.

I welcome your ideas or comments; please feel free to email me at bbaron@sbccd.edu


By Bruce Baron Chancellor, San Bernardino Community College District

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