The San Diego Community College District has joined the states of Tennessee and Oregon in implementing free community college. In February Chancellor Constance Carroll announced that 200 students would have their course fees waived for the 2016-17 academic year.

In this first year, 175 graduating San Diego high school seniors will be selected, along with 25 continuing education students. They must carry at least 12 units in both semesters, maintain a 2.0 grade-point average, and contribute eight hours of community service.

The program will cost $215,000 in its first year. “We’re self-funding the pilot to begin with, and we’re hoping to raise money,” Carroll told the community newspaper La Prensa. “My goal would be to raise an endowment of $10 million or $12 million to retire the cost of the total expanded program, around $1 million. Then it would be an ongoing program.”

San Diego is returning to the goals of 1960 California Master Plan for Higher Education, which guaranteed the top one-eighth of graduating high school seniors a tuition-free place at a UC campus, the top one-third at a Cal State campus, and any student “capable of benefiting from instruction” at a community college. Graduates of community colleges would be guaranteed transfer to CSU or UC to obtain a four-year degree.

The promise of the Master Plan was kept until 1978, when Proposition 13 cut taxes and state funding. Since tuition was still banned, the UC system began charging “fees,” now amounting to thousands of dollars per semester. Eight years ago the regents gave up the hypocrisy and called them tuition.

Community colleges kept the plan’s promise longer, but eventually also began charging fees, which today are $46 per unit without fee waivers or other forms of student aid. A full-time student now pays $1014 per academic year, in addition to other fees and course materials. In San Diego’s new program, the unit fees are covered and students getting financial aid can qualify for $1000 for textbooks and other supplies.

Tennessee was the first state to make community college free. In 2014 it budgeted $34 million for students who couldn’t get Pell grants or other financial aid to attend any of its 13 community colleges or 27 colleges of applied technology. In 2015, of 15,000 students enrolled in the program, not one had to take out a tuition loan.

In 2015, Oregon budgeted $10 million to cover 10,000 students at its 17 community colleges. Even part-time students can qualify for a pro-rated grant. Over 12,000 students applied this academic year. Although the state still charges $50 a term, officials predict that the Oregon Promise will boost community college enrollment by 25 percent.

In his 2015 State of the Union address, President Obama called for the creation of the America’s College Promise program to make the first two years of higher education free. Democrats introduced the America’s College Promise Act, budgeting $60 billion for it, but Republicans blocked it.

Nevertheless, the idea caught fire, with both Democratic presidential candidates supporting it in some form. Six states have enacted free community college programs and ten others have introduced enabling legislation.

In San Diego, the 200 students will begin taking classes this fall at Mesa, City and Miramar Colleges, and in the Continuing Education Division. “This will be a great benefit for students,” Carroll said.

— By David Bacon, CFT Reporter

Accreditation reform: Final blows to the ACCJC

College presidents support move to new accreditor: On March 17, community college presidents from across the state struck a decisive blow with a more than 90 percent vote to reform the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges and prepare to move to another accreditor. This vote of the presidents confirmed the consensus that the ACCJC is no longer widely accepted in its community, and does not meet the needs of California public higher education.

Board of Governors votes to establish new model with new agency: In an historic vote four days later, the California Community Colleges Board of Governors voted unanimously to reform its current accrediting agency — the ACCJC — and begin to establish a new model for fair accrediting practices with a new agency. CFT and the larger community applauded the board’s courageous and unprecedented action that marks a renewal of opportunity for California’s community college students.