Rose Garden Resident

New bill could lead to free tuition at community colleges

- By Grace Hase ghase@bayareanew­

As enrollment rates for community colleges across California continue to decline, one state legislator is looking to make college free for some Silicon Valley students.

Sen. Dave Cortese, D-san Jose, has introduced Senate Bill 629, which would waive the cost of tuition for students living in the West Valley-mission Community College district. Current state law requires community colleges to charge at least $46 per unit per semester, meaning the governor would have to sign off on tuition waivers before it goes into effect — which could be as soon as January 2024.

“I think the underlying motivation is anything we can do to offset the high cost of living, which is frankly hurting most people — not all — but most people in our district and it's certainly having a really challengin­g effect on students,” Cortese said. “We've talked a lot about debt forgivenes­s at the state and national level, but this is kind of the other side of it.”

If passed, the district would become the second in the state to waive tuition. Last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed off on a pilot program that runs through July 1, 2028, and uses local funds to reduce or waive tuition for schools in the San Mateo Community College District.

The program went into effect Jan. 1.

Cortese's bill comes at a time when community college enrollment across the state reached a 30-year low for the 2021-22 school year, according to data from the California Community Colleges Chancellor's Office.

“We're getting qualified high school students that announce that they're going into the community college system in April and May, and by the time enrollment starts they have to make decisions in terms of their basic sustenance and survivabil­ity and then they don't enroll,” Cortese added.

West Valley-mission Community College District Chancellor Bradley Davis said the district is “uniquely situated” to waive tuition since it receives all its funding from local property taxes. Last year, the district's board found a way to balance its budget without collecting tuition or other fees — making the idea feasible in the first place.

“This is all about eliminatin­g barriers that stand in front of our students' education and dreams and making sure that we are not leaving any students on the sidelines because they lack the funds to attend community college,” Davis said.

Though West Valley-mission Community College District needs the state to sign off on its fee waivers, Davis said the district already has started taking other “unpreceden­ted” steps to remove potential barriers by waiving child care costs, fees associated with physical and mental health services and parking fees.

“In our district it's really important for us to do everything we can to remove barriers that stand in front of our students educationa­l dreams,” Davis said.

Kalle Glutting, who is a sophomore at West Valley and president of the student government, most likely will be moving on to a four-year university by the time the fee waivers go into effect. However, he said he supports the plan because it “decreases barriers to entry for college for all sorts of students, but especially students who have been historical­ly disadvanta­ged.”

The chancellor said he hopes the proposed policy will help the district bring students back who dropped out during the pandemic and aid them “in ways that we couldn't assist them before.”

Community college enrollment was yet another casualty of the pandemic, with course withdrawal­s increasing by 55% from spring 2019 to spring 2020, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.

The decline in enrollment across the state's public school system, however, is being felt by all grade levels, with California seeing a decline in K-grade 12 enrollment for the fifth year in a row in the 2021-22 school year. If current trends hold, the Department of Finance projects a further decline in enrollment by 524,000.

Experts have attributed the decrease to declining birth rates and migration out of the state as the cost of living continues to rise. The impact already is being felt by many Bay Area school districts that have had to shutter a number of schools.

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