In summary

The “free college” movement in California has consisted of two years of community college, for full-time students, with an assortment of strings attached. But with AB 1862, Los Angeles Assemblyman Miguel Santiago seeks to take California College Promise program, literally, to the next level: tuition-free junior and senior years for transfers to the Cal States.  

In yet another push to make higher education more accessible in California, a bill filed in the state Legislature last week would extend the state’s tuition-free college guarantee to four years — and beyond community college — for some students, making it one of the most generous programs in the nation.

Students who earn an associate’s degree for transfer through the California College Promise program could finish their bachelor’s degrees for free at California State University under the legislation, authored by Los Angeles Assemblyman Miguel Santiago.

While the bill must still make its way through the legislative process, it has surfaced at a time when free college has become a hot topic during the Democratic presidential primaries, just a year after California’s liberal governor and Legislature gave community college districts money to waive two years of fees for first-time, full-time students.

Santiago authored that law, too, and said his goal now is for students from low-income families to see a bachelor’s degree as within their financial reach.

“If we want a truly debt-free education, you’ve got to begin that conversation by cutting tuition and fees,” he said. “If you don’t tell these kids every single day that you’re going to go to college, it may not be a reality.”

The bill has a long way to go and a price tag ‘in the low hundreds of millions.’ But it comes at a time when free college is a hot presidential primary topic.

About 22,000 students entered CSU in the 2017-18 school year with an associate’s degree for transfer, a special two-year credential that guarantees a spot at the university. The CSU has not yet taken a position on the bill, said spokesperson Mike Uhlenkamp.

Keep tabs on the latest California policy and politics news

While the bill does not contain a cost estimate, the price tag would likely be “in the low hundreds of millions,” said Francisco Rodriguez, chancellor of the Los Angeles Community College District, a bill sponsor. (The overall state budget proposed by Gov. Gavin Newsom last week totaled $222 billion, with nearly $4 billion earmarked for Cal State next year.)

Rodriguez said the number of students enrolling in his district from local public high schools had gone up by nearly a quarter since it instituted its free community college program, which also includes extra counseling and other support. He believes more of them would go on to university if tuition were covered. “It raises the level of aspiration, and relieves the pressure of how am I going to pay for college,” he said.

Alexa Victoriano, a 27-year-old student at East Los Angeles Community College and Los Angeles Harbor College, hopes to start at Sacramento State next fall after earning two associates degrees for transfer. The process took six years, she said, during which she cleaned houses, managed a local ice cream shop and took breaks to care for sick and pregnant family members. Moving away from home for the first time would be easier if she had her tuition paid, she said, giving her time to find a new job in Sacramento.

Assemblyman Miguel Santiago, Los Angeles Democrat, in his Capitol office on June 19, 2018.

“I think it would make a huge difference for a lot of first-generation [students] like myself,” she said.

Among free college programs nationwide, New York’s Excelsior Scholarship covers four years of tuition at the state’s public universities for students with family incomes of $125,000 or less, provided they attend full-time and stay in the area after graduation. But most state free college plans only pay for community college, which helps contain cost and draw bipartisan support.

The language of the California bill will likely evolve as the session progresses. While it would cover two years at California State University, only about 40% of transfer students complete a bachelor’s degree that quickly. And it does not address non-tuition expenses such as housing and food, for which students pay about $2,000 per month on average, according to a survey by the state’s Student Aid Commission.

The bill’s cost is also limited by the small size of the state’s existing College Promise program: Two-thirds of the state’s two million community college students attend part-time and don’t qualify.

Clamor over the rising cost of college in California led to two major bills last year that sought to expand the state’s main scholarship, the Cal Grant, with estimated price tags ranging into the billions. Both stalled, and Gov. Gavin Newsom did not include funding for such an expansion in his proposed 2020-21 budget, though he set aside about $22 million to increase grants for students with children. 

But the bills’ authors have said they will bring new versions of the legislation back this year. Santiago’s free college proposal could offer legislators another, potentially less-expensive option for tackling affordability.

If passed, it could also increase demand for spots at the already-overcrowded California State University, said Gail Yen, a policy analyst at California Competes, a nonpartisan higher education think tank.  

“The community colleges are doing a lot of reforms to improve student success and to create better pathways to transfer, but there are questions about can the CSUs and UCs take all these students,” she said. “This is a pretty big incentive, so it would put more pressure on building capacity in CSU to take more students.”

This story and other higher education coverage are being supported by College Futures Foundation. 

Support in-depth reporting that matters

As a nonprofit newsroom, we rely on the generosity of Californians like you to cover the issues that matter. If you value our reporting, support our journalism with a donation.

$
$
$

Your contribution is appreciated.

We want to hear from you

Want to submit a guest commentary or reaction to an article we wrote? You can find our submission guidelines here. Please contact Gary Reed with any commentary questions: gary@calmatters.org, (916) 234-3081.

Felicia Mello edits CalMatters' College Journalism Network, a collaboration with student journalists across California to cover higher education from the ground up. Her reporting on affordability, equity...