This college district is waiving enrollment fees for spring through “free college” program

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SAN MATEO — A pilot program at San Mateo community colleges could allow most of its 30,000 students to attend classes a reduced cost — and potentially for free — if they choose one of the district’s three campuses for the spring semester, officials announced this week.

The Promise Scholar Program, which Gov. Gavin Newsom signed it into law Sept. 30, targets county residents who are at risk of dropping out of the San Mateo County Community College District. The legislative bill that funded the program with local property taxes was written by state Sen. Josh Becker.

Similar programs in the past have “helped thousands of students facing financial hardships over the years be able to afford a quality community college education and now we have a chance to help every student in the district by shouldering that financial burden for them,” Becker said.

The pilot program, which will run five years through July 1, 2028, uses local funds to reduce or eliminate student tuition and fees. The college board will decide what level of financial help students will receive.

The district’s recently approved 2022-2023 budget also includes funding to provide books and education materials for students starting Jan. 1, 2023, when the bill takes effect.

“Attending college is more expensive than ever and students, fresh out of high school, who have worked so hard throughout their academic careers are faced with an enormous financial decision,” Becker said. “Do they take out loans? Do they get another job? Should they live at home longer?  Should they go to school at all? This law will let the SMCCCD remove a significant number of roadblocks for these students and make their decision to get a quality education a whole lot easier.”

To qualify for the enrollment fee waiver, new students are asked to apply for admission through, the California Community Colleges website. Eligible undocumented students who live in San Mateo County also can qualify for both a non-resident tuition fee waiver and the “free college” waiver.

California’s first community college opened its doors in Fresno in 1910 and enrollment at all community college campuses was free of charge until 1985, when a $5 per class unit was first imposed. Today, the enrollment fee at all of California’s 115 community college campuses is $46 per unit, a number that has been unchanged since 2012, according to Becker’s office. That fee does not include other costs associated with attending a community college, including books, parking, health services, student activities and more.

“Free community college is the most efficient and effective investment government can make to accelerate economic and social equity,” SMCCCD Board of Trustees member John Pimentel said.

The program will be used to create “opportunity for families who are typically not landowners and who are first generation college students to enhance lifetime earnings and enable intergenerational wealth creation through higher education,” Pimentel said.

The bill was co-authored by Democrat Assembly members Marc Berman and Kevin Mullin. It passed the Assembly and the Senate on unanimous, bi-partisan votes of 77-0 and 40-0, respectively.

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