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California Community college students may be able to get their first year of school for free

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Cuesta College offers an opportunity for San Luis Obispo locals to get their first year of college for free.
Photo by Taylor Bodway

By Taylor Bodway
Special Contributor
Journalism 201A

Most community college students face stress regarding money for college. but what if after high school all California Community Colleges offered to pay your first year of tuition?

Governor Jerry Brown signed the “California College Promise” bill earlier this year which will become law by Jan. 2018. The program will waive tuition fees for the first year at all California community colleges and would be offered to any first year full-time California resident student.

According to California Legislative Information, this bill would be administered by the chancellor of the California Community Colleges. Funding will be distributed to each community college that meets prescribed requirements to waive fees for one academic year for first-time students.

Students must be enrolled in at least 12 semester units or the equivalent at the college and submit either a Free Application for Federal Student Aid or a California Dream Act application.

Although the program may seem to begin and end with simply helping students with tuition the first year, its motives go beyond that.

“While many people only talk about this bill as ‘College Promise,’ or this bill as a free tuition program, it really is about creating the environment and alignment that will help students finish college,” California Community Colleges Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley said.

Cuesta College does offer the Cuesta Promise, which is a scholarship program for all San Luis Obispo County high school graduates to attend Cuesta fee-free for their first year.  However, not every student at Cuesta is local and is therefore ineligible for the Cuesta Promise.

Out of last year’s graduating class of 2017, there were 910 students, and only 111 of those students were eligible for the Cuesta Promise Program according to Cuesta College Superintendent Gil Stork.

Cuesta student Lauren Elholm, 19, is from Bakersfield, California, and shared how this program would have affected her academically and financially.

“It would have motivated me to go to school which would have set me up for success in the long run,” Elholm said, “Not only would it help me continue to my second year academically, I would have been more financially able to pay for college in the following years,” she added she ended up dropping classes and not performing at her peak her first year.

The California College Promise would reach out to any full time student who was a resident of California, regardless of financial need, allowing an extra 19,000 students state-wide to qualify. Oakley said financial support is only a piece of the program.

According to National College Access Network, College Promise programs that promote early awareness of college costs and opportunities can be an effective strategy for increasing college access and success.

“We’re trying to increase student success. If you enroll full-time, the success rate is much higher than if you’re part-time,” The author of the California Promise bill, Assemblyman Miguel Santiago, explained.

Kendyl Collinsworth is a 22-year-old part time Cuesta student from Montana. Although she is now a legal California resident, she has had many struggles affording school and she now takes her classes online.

The cost of Cuesta’s tuition for a full time student is almost $1,300 per year, but with all other fees and living expenses, it’s estimated just under $21,000 a year for students like Kendyl who don’t live with their parents, according to Cuesta’s estimated cost of attendance on the school’s website.

“I 100 percent would have been a full time student,” Collinsworth said, “[However] working full time and being a full time student are not able to coexist.”

She explained that she started taking online courses through Cuesta because school was starting to interfere with her work as a restaurant server, which is necessary for her to pay her bills. For situations like hers, the California College Promise would have been extremely useful in their academic careers.

Collinsworth believes she was much more likely to drop classes or do poorly because of the cost of school.

“I would have been more motivated to get good grades, which would have given me a foundation of a high GPA that I would’ve wanted to maintain in the following year,” She said.

Although according to National Center for Education Statistics, the majority of Cuesta students receive some type of financial aid, it’s not always sufficient.

“I think FAFSA is an extremely flawed system,” Elholm said, “It doesn’t always accurately estimate how much the student’s family contributes to them.”

“My family is middle class, so there’s zero breaks for me. I have two brothers. The money my family has on paper is not going to get all three of us, let alone just me, through college,” Collinsworth stated when asked about her experience with FAFSA,

The argument against the bill is mainly aimed at the inclusion of students that don’t qualify for financial aid. However, according to the U.S. Department of Education, around 20 percent of all undergraduate students didn’t file a financial aid application, and a large share of low-income students never enroll in college at all because they believe it is unaffordable.

“I’ve tried to claim financially independent because I am financially responsible for myself, but FAFSA makes it incredibly difficult to do that unless you’re literally homeless or a child of the state,” said Collinsworth.

The cost of the program would be around $31 million a year. The starting time of the program is dependent on how lawmakers decide funding for next year’s budget, which has a deadline of June 2018.

Taylor Bodway produced this piece while being a student in JOUR 201A – Beginning Reporting and Writing.
This and other courses in the Journalism & Digital Communication Department offers students the opportunity to get their work published.


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