Tuition-free—for some

‘Free college in California,’ trumpeted the headlines when Gov. Jerry Brown signed the California College Promise into law in 2017. Well…kinda. The program waives one year of tuition for community college students at participating campuses who are attending for the first time, take a full course load, and haven’t already benefited from the fee waiver offered to very low-income students.

The catch? More than two-thirds of community college students attend part time and don’t qualify. Other eligibility requirements further shrink the pool.

The same dynamic has played out across the country as state legislatures riding the wave of interest in “free college” have created Promise programs, some with bipartisan support.

Restricting “free college” programs to smaller groups of students saves states money, but limits impact. Still, supporters of the California College Promise and similar programs say simply talking about free college encourages low-income students to pursue higher education.

In California, some community colleges have redirected College Promise funds to buy books and meal plans for students who need them.