How California Students Are Leading the Fight for Tuition-Free Community College

It's time to stop the skyrocketing costs of higher education

By Maxwell Lubin, Founder of Rise California

California is home to over 2 million community college students — more than the entire populations of Vermont, Wyoming, and Washington, D.C. combined. But the rising cost of higher education — which has increased over 1,100 percent nationwide since the late 1970s — has left tens of thousands of California students hungry and homeless, and discouraged students from pursuing college at all.

But a new proposal from California legislators and Governor Gavin Newsom, the California College Promise bill, could be a gamechanger for students by offering two years of free tuition to full-time students. The idea from state lawmakers is a big deal. If enacted into law, California would follow states like Tennessee and Rhode Island that have launched statewide free community college programs.

Although free tuition would not address every cost of attending college, the program would go a long way towards helping more students enroll and earn crucial federal and state financial aid. It would also help stop the exponential rise in tuition and fees. California’s community colleges were tuition-free until the mid-1980s, but today it costs about $1,200 to enroll full-time in addition to the price of books, housing, and more. The total costs of attending college is a big reason why student loan debt has exploded, totaling more than $1.5 trillion nationwide.

Public colleges and universities were nearly free for our parents’ generation, but have become a financial anchor for our own. That’s why a little over a year ago, I joined thousands of students in launching Rise California, a student-led nonprofit organization fighting for free college. Every day, we amplify students’ stories about the consequences of the cost of college and the fight for free college. So far, we have organized tens of thousands of students to help pass a first-year free community college law, stop university tuition hikes, and win hundreds of millions more dollars for students in the state legislature. Enacting the California College Promise is the next step in putting college within reach of every student in our state.

As we have begun building the free college movement in California, voters are taking notice, too. In a recent poll by the Public Policy Institute of California, likely voters ranked free community college as their second-highest priority for new state funding, just behind universal healthcare.

The good news for students is that we’re gaining support from newly-elected officials. California’s new Governor Gavin Newsom proposed $40 million in his first-ever budget to make the second year of community college free for an estimated 28,000 eligible students. In San Francisco, where Newsom previously served as Mayor, voters passed a local initiative to make San Francisco City College free for all residents.

But free college is not just a cause for progressives or those living in California. Republican leaders in Tennessee have enacted the most comprehensive free community college program in the nation, helping thousands more students enroll in college and take out fewer student loans. Since the creation of the Tennessee Promise, legislators in other red states like West Virginia are seeking to build programs of their own. Conservative and liberal policy makers alike are seeing the value of free community college for helping people prepare for jobs in a rapidly changing economy. With millions of jobs unfilled because of a lack of qualified workers, improving the access and affordability of higher education is one of the most important things we can do to improve our economy and level the playing field for workers.

As Governor Newsom and California leaders begin a new legislative session of their own, you can expect to see thousands of students voicing their support for free community college. We are calling on the legislature to quickly amend the California Promise, so that every California student knows they can complete two years of community college tuition-free.

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