Tuition is free at these San Jose community colleges—for now
Evergreen Valley College student Kelly Doan said if not for the free tuition, she couldn't afford to go to school without working and getting financial aid. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

    The COVID-19 pandemic and decreasing enrollment enabled San Jose community colleges to stretch free tuition to part-time students, but all that may be in jeopardy by next summer.

    The federal Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund gave Evergreen Valley and San Jose City colleges millions in funding to help students stay enrolled. Evergreen Valley College received $17.4 million and San Jose City College more than $11.6 million. Now those dollars are set to expire next summer, potentially leaving students in the lurch. 

    The schools that make up the San Jose-Evergreen Community College District started offering free tuition to qualifying students taking six or more credits last semester. About 3,094 students have received free tuition at Evergreen Valley College and 2,153 have at San Jose City College.

    For Evergreen Valley College student Kelly Doan, 17, COVID slammed the family financially when her father lost his construction job. She said free tuition makes a difference in a single-income household. Without it, she’d have to apply for financial aid and a job, as well as take fewer credits, she said.

    “I don’t have the financial stability to be able to go here if they didn’t have free tuition,” she told San José Spotlight. “I think that would be pretty stressful.”

    San Jose City College is using the funds to offset costs associated with free tuition and student fees through spring semester 2023, said San Jose City College President Rowena Tomaneng. Students who qualify for grants and non-loan forms of aid must utilize that aid first, then any remaining cost is paid through the federal relief funds, she said. Evergreen Valley College has applied the fund toward financial aid, according to President Tammeil Gilkerson. 

    The community college district wants to continue providing free tuition beyond the current academic year, but Tomaneng said this is contingent on state or local funding. 

    “We need to take a look at the budget because the higher education emergency relief funding extension is expiring at the end of June 2023,” Tomaneng told San José Spotlight. “We are looking at how we can do this in terms of other funding opportunities on campus and as a district.” 

    Evergreen Valley College student Marcos Sanchez said attending school for free is liberating. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

    Prior to the relief funding, the San Jose-Evergreen Community College District only offered free tuition to students taking 12 credits or more through the state’s College Promise bill, signed by then Gov. Jerry Brown in 2017. Community colleges could use the funding to waive all or partial fees for first-time, full-time community college students who completed a financial aid application. This is ongoing.

    Doan said many students come to Evergreen Valley College because of the free tuition and she has encouraged her friends to do so. She has received $1,700 so far toward tuition, books and other expenses.

    It’s important to offer free tuition to part-time students, Gilkerson said, as COVID has deeply affected the community. In a student survey, students said the financial aid helped them stay enrolled, she said.

    “Students told us their families are experiencing financial hardships,” Gilkerson told San José Spotlight. “Students have to take on additional jobs to continue their education. The cost of living here is so massive. We believe supporting students is an important part of being able to encourage their enrollment and support them during a difficult time.”

    The funding is also needed to boost enrollment. Evergreen Valley College is down 7% from last fall and the district has experienced a double-digit decline since the start of COVID, Gilkerson said. Since fall 2020, San Jose City College has experienced an approximate 11% decrease in headcount and an approximate 10% decrease in full-time equivalent students, Tomaneng said. 

    Marcos Sanchez, a 19-year-old engineering major at Evergreen Valley College, said the free tuition offers a “helping hand” so he has a chance at getting an education.

    “It helps me not have the fear of how I’m going to pay it back,” he told San José Spotlight. 

    Not having to work while attending school allows him more time to study and not carry the burden of student loans, he said. He’d also likely have to take fewer credits. It would be more stressful without the free tuition, he said.

    “When the pandemic hit, we realized… many of our students are coming from impacted ZIP codes, the poorest neighborhoods in the San Jose area,” Tomaneng said. “We’re doing the most we can to facilitate students continuing to access higher education and not drop out.”

    Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected]

    Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story listed a lower amount for Evergreen Valley College’s allotment.

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