Silicon Valley community college district could offer free tuition
Mission College students Nico Escamilla and Johnny Gonzalez said free tuition would lighten their loads. Both students are in their first year of college. Photo by Loan-Anh Pham.

    Free community college is the ultimate goal for one newly-introduced state bill.

    California Senate Bill 629, introduced by state Sen. Dave Cortese, would allow the West Valley-Mission Community College District to stop charging its students tuition and cover other costs such as transportation and books. The bill, if approved, would expand access to higher education and open opportunities for low-income students in one of the nation’s most expensive regions, advocates said.

    The proposed bill’s co-authors include Assemblymembers Evan Low and Gail Pellerin, as well as state Sens. Josh Becker and Marc Berman.

    Brad Davis, chancellor of the West Valley-Mission Community College District, said the aim is to eliminate enrollment fees for students by January 2024. Under California’s Education Code, community colleges charge students $46 per semester unit. SB 629 would exempt the district from doing so. Costs would be covered through the district’s general fund, which relies on local property taxes and revenues, he added.

    “Having free community college provides an opportunity for students from our most vulnerable populations who might otherwise be left on the sidelines,” Davis told San José Spotlight. “We are uniquely positioned to do something incredibly rare and something that should give the students in our neighborhoods a great deal of hope.”

    Mission College is one of two community colleges in the West Valley-Mission Community College District. Photo by Loan-Anh Pham.

    Davis said the bill opens the door for community college districts that have the means to not charge students tuition and would not cost the state any money. West-Valley Mission Community College District serves more than 13,000 students across its two campuses in Santa Clara and Saratoga.

    COVID-19 pandemic funds allowed districts such as the San Jose-Evergreen Community College District to offer free tuition, but those funds may dry up this summer. Other community college districts offer their students grants that waive enrollment fees, but the offer doesn’t apply to all students, Davis said.

    Johnny Gonzalez, a Mission College business administration student, said he paid more than $600 for his classes last semester with his family’s help. This semester, he said he’s paying his own way and works part time as a barista. He’s completing as many requirements as possible and hopes to transfer to a four-year university, he added.

    “I had my parents, but this time I got it by myself,” Gonzalez, 19, told San José Spotlight. “There’s a lot of people that are low income. I don’t see why college shouldn’t be free.”

    Cortese said future laws could make higher education even more affordable, such as eliminating tuition at the California State University schools and tackling student loan debt.

    “Community colleges have a very low relative cost compared to UCs or CSUs, or universities in another state, but it’s still a cost,” Cortese told San José Spotlight. “This becomes the beginning of what we hope will be incremental change.”

    Davis said truly free community college goes beyond eliminating tuition fees. Student experiences during the pandemic revealed access to higher education also involves lowering costs related to books, food and housing. San Jose has the highest number of unhoused young adults per capita across the nation’s major cities. The district has already worked to waive health service costs and parking fees for students, he added.

    “What you’re seeing is a lot of the things that we learned during the pandemic being implemented in a post-pandemic world to draw students back into the community college system, and to help them pursue their educational dreams,” Davis said.

    Nico Escamilla, 19, enrolled in Mission College this semester. Before college, he was in a trade school program and said he’s worked plumbing, electrical and retail jobs. He said he’s getting help from college staff to look for financial aid as a first-generation college student. Free tuition would be a lifesaver, he added.

    “I have to pay bills,” Escamilla told San José Spotlight. “It’d be a blessing.”

    Contact Loan-Anh Pham at [email protected] or follow @theLoanAnhLede on Twitter.

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