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Long Beach City College at night

City College, courtesy Rene Hoyo

California is poised to be the next domino to fall in offering "free" two-year college to students. But questions remain over whether or not that domino will fall.

When it comes to tuition and fees, California already has the lowest rates in the country for students attending two-year public colleges.

Free community college plans have been around for years and have recently picked up some steam -- President Obama announced his America's College Promise earlier this year, Oregon's legislature passed free two-year college legislation last week and congressional Democrats have attempted to create a national initiative.

And a wide range of related Promise programs exist in some form or another across the country.

But California, with its 112 community colleges and 2.1 million students, would be considered a massive win for advocates of free two-year college.

The state already has a huge tax surplus and has been reinvesting in higher education and boosting need-based financial aid this year. So waiving all fees for community college students might not be too large a leap for the state to make.

The state's community college system receives about $400 million in fee revenues a year. And the current per-credit cost for students, which is set by the Legislature, is $46, said Dan Troy, the system's vice chancellor for fiscal policy.

According the College Board, California had the lowest tuition and fees for two-year college students in the country, at $1,429 for this school year.

"We do have a fairly generous fee-waiver system in the state. So about two-thirds of our units offered in the state fees are actually waived," said Troy, adding that the number changes depending on the number of students who meet the waiver's income threshold.

But the chief barrier to offering state-funded community college has to do with state funding levels. The fee revenues support creating more class sections for students and support services like counseling, Troy said.

"The issue is really the trade-off: if the state wants to make the choice to essentially provide the waiver fee for that last one-third of units or if the state wants to fund more course sections or more student support services," he said.

Distribution of aid to California Community College (CCC) students. Source: TICAS

2013-14 Recipients of each type of aid Total CCC Head Count Share of Total CCC Head Count receiving type of aid
BOG Fee Waivers 1,036,610 2,310,460 45%
Cal Grants 92,081 2,310,460 4%
Pell Grants 498,370 2,310,460 22%

California's low-income community college students can qualify for Board of Governor (BOG) grants, which waive fees, and standard federal financial aid such as Pell Grants. Students coming straight out of high school can enter the generous Cal Grant state aid program, which can cover tuition and fees. There are also competitive Cal Grants that go to nontraditional students, meaning those who are more than one year removed from high school.

Last month a California budget agreement included an increase in the number of competitive Cal Grants. According to the Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS), prior to the increase there were 17 eligible applicants for every grant. The budget agreement increased the number of grants by nearly 15 percent, from to 25,750 from 22,500.

"This is a hugely important increase," said Debbie Cochrane, research director at TICAS. "The number of eligible people has grown tremendously from when the program was created. There was one grant for every four …. Thousands more students will be able to get these grants with the increase in the budget."

But Cochrane also said the increase should be kept in perspective since the number of eligible applicants for the grant has only decreased from one in 17 to one in 15.

Many community college students are nontraditional, which means they're competing for this small slice of the pie.

The majority of Long Beach City College students have their fees waived, college officials said. And the Long Beach College Promise program covers the first semester of tuition for every student from a local high school.

"We have an opportunity in California given all the aid that's on the table. We're maybe $350 million [$400 million] away from being able to do that, and it is something we should be able to strive for," said Eloy Oakley, president of Long Beach. "Fully state funded would be the appropriate way to describe it. Just as we expect students to get a high school diploma, we will now expect them to gain postsecondary credential."

But Cochrane said she's not certain how much of an "appetite" people in the state have for eliminating tuition for everyone at a community college. Tuition was long free at California's community colleges, which began to charge tuition in 1984.

"I don't know if the state is particularly close to going back to free tuition for everyone at community colleges," said Cochrane. "Certainly while the movement in this budget is undoubtedly to increase financial aid and increase financial aid for community college students in particular, but it's all done in a very targeted way."

Still, if the state moves that direction, Troy believes that waiving those fees for all students would have to be phased in over time.

"Our system needs to grow with the population … and we wouldn't want to see a rapid drop-off in support services," he said. "Yes, we need to get people in the system, but we want to make sure they complete their program."

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