State looks to lead way in free tuition

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To revitalize dwindling enrollment rates, while at the same time responding to the debate over the value of higher education, California is prepared to lead the way in offering “tuition free” college.

In February of this year, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee announced that his city would become the first in the nation to make community college “free” for all its residents, regardless of income.  In addition to covering the cost of tuition for all students, Lee’s plan would also give low-income students money towards the cost of books and other supplies ($500 for full-time students, $200 for part-time students).

“California is already the best state in the nation when it comes to meeting the needs of those who can’t afford to go to college,” said Marc Thomason, a retired financial aid counselor who started his own consulting business, Thomason Navigations, to help parents learn more about financial aid opportunities for their teenagers.  “There are a handful of states that try to ease the burden, especially at the two-year level, but California has really done an amazing job for the last thirty years or so.  I mean, just look at the BOG grants and the number of people taking advantage of them.”

Board of Governors grants (or “BOG” grants) are fee waivers that eliminate enrollment costs for low-income students.  The California Community College Chancellor’s Office reported that 55% of the 2.1 million students enrolled in the state’s community college system in 2016 received a BOG waiver.  This year, it’s estimated that the BOG program will cover $803 million in enrollment fees.

Despite this, however, California’s community college system—the largest in the nation—has been at the forefront of a nationwide trend of declining enrollment rates.

The most recent numbers from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, a nonprofit educational research organization, show that enrollment rates have been declining nationally at a rate between 2% and 5% each year since 2010.  During that same period, California’s community college rates have dropped roughly 21%, per a report done by the Public Policy Institute of California.

Some of the blame might lie at the feet of politicians like Lee and recent Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.  Both have made high-profile arguments criticizing the high cost of a college education, and some students might be discouraged to pursue something they’ve been repeatedly told is too expensive.

“I almost didn’t want to even try to go to college,” said first year Delta College student Daren Grier.  “I kept hearing everybody talking about how expensive it was, but then it was like, I came over here [to Delta] and started asking questions and the counselor said I could get my fees paid.  If it wasn’t for that, I don’t even know.  But I had to ask.”

One way to eliminate the guesswork involved in planning for the costs associated with college would be to eliminate costs altogether.

Most plans, including Lee’s, propose covering tuition and most (if not all) expenses related to textbooks.  Living expenses are almost always left up to the individual.  This could change soon as well, at least in California.

Last month, Democrats in the state assembly introduced the “Degrees Not Debt” program, which would not only cover tuition in California, but living expenses for those at four year institutions as well.  The proposal would be gradually implemented over the course of five years, but with the state budget deadline less than three months away it’s a longshot that lawmakers will be able to get the necessary funds allocated in the next fiscal year.

“There’s a lot of college debt out there,” said Thomason.  “I don’t think it’s the only thing driving enrollment down, but I do know that it’s a concern.”

If imminent debt isn’t what’s keeping people away from college, then what is?

“It’s a different game now,” said Thomason.  “It used to be, kids get out of high school and maybe don’t know what they want to do with their life (sic), and that’s okay.  That’s what they spend the first year of [community] college doing, because the unit cost was only five dollars and they could swing it.  But now, you’re talking thirty-five or forty-five dollars a unit so they feel like they better have some kind of idea going in, otherwise it’s going to get expensive.”