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Interest in free community college programs has been gradually spreading across the nation. But no other state can match California's boom in Promise programs.

Whether funded by a private company or a city’s taxpayers, the state in recent years has seen a dramatic increase in initiatives to eliminate tuition for community college students.

Of the nation's more than 190 tuition-free community college programs, more than 50 exist in California.

The state's size -- and its 113 two-year institutions -- makes it more likely to have a large number of free community college programs. California also boasts some of the lowest tuition rates in the country and is politically aligned with the progressive idea. And some of the state's Democratic lawmakers are rolling out a plan that would seek to nearly eradicate student loans for university students and to increase grants to make the first year of community college tuition-free.

In addition, later this month the California Community Colleges Board of Governors will consider approving $15 million in funds, known as Promise Innovation Grants, for colleges to start or expand Promise partnerships. That funding was made available through legislation passed in Sacramento last year.

“The chancellor’s office is committed to building on this effort and further strengthening the statewide framework that allows local partnerships to proliferate and thrive,” Paul Feist, vice chancellor for communications and marketing with the two-year system chancellor’s office, said in an email. “We recognize that communities are best suited to build partnerships that suit the needs of their students. We are proud that California is a leader in this movement, and we fully expect more and more districts to stand up Promise partnerships in the weeks and months ahead.”

As of last August, 23 programs had been launched in the state, with more than 50 programs at various stages of development, according to the nonprofit research organization WestEd, which has been tracking the growth and characteristics of the state’s Promise programs since 2015.

“I would not be surprised if there are 60 programs at some stage of development or implementation by the end of 2017,” Mary Rauner, a senior research associate at WestEd, said in an email.

On March 8 the San Jose Promise joined the pack. The program this fall will begin guaranteeing free tuition for two years and covering some other college costs for up to 500 graduates of three high school districts.

Statewide Future?

Despite the various free-tuition initiatives, don't rule out the possibility of California creating a statewide program. Democrats in the state's Legislature revealed a proposal Monday that would supplement state aid and eliminate the need for student loans in the California State University and University of California Systems, while also increasing grants to community college students to give them a tuition-free first year.

Advocates of free community college point out that a statewide option is still on the table, but local organizations, colleges and cities are taking the initiative and creating their own Promise programs first. Those same advocates point to the way the Tennessee Promise grew from a local initiative in Knoxville.

“The misperception is often that Tennessee Promise happened overnight, when in fact, it began in 2008 in one county and existed as a nonprofit raising dollars privately for student scholarships,” said Krissy DeAlejandro, the executive director of tnAchieves, which is the mentoring and volunteering arm of Tennessee Promise. “I truly believe our journey would have been much more difficult had the home-grown, community-based program not existed.”

Last month, during Achieving the Dream’s annual conference in California, three Promise programs -- each in a different stage of development -- shared their differences and similarities with other college administrators.

Those differences ranged from how they are funded -- by city taxpayers in San Francisco or an oil company in Richmond -- to the age at which students enter the programs and the supports they receive.

“More College Promise launches have been initiated because starting small with what’s doable, getting help from local foundations, business leaders and campus supporters, and incorporating a research base to build the tracking system to help more students succeed are all important components for sustainability,” said Martha Kanter, a former under secretary of education under President Obama. Kanter now leads the College Promise Campaign.

There's also the Richmond Promise, which benefits high school students who live in Richmond or North Richmond -- about 10 miles north of Oakland. The program is mostly funded by Chevron.

After one year, the program has awarded 255 scholarships to students attending more than 50 colleges and universities. Most of those students attend Contra Costa College.

Mojdeh Mehdizadeh, Contra Costa's president, said the success of the Richmond initiative on their campus led the institution to apply for one of the Promise Innovation Grants from the chancellor’s office.

“The Richmond Promise focused on students who live in Richmond, but Contra Costa serves more than just those students,” she said. “The first year of Promise Innovation Grants will be directed to Richmond Promise scholarships and, learning from that, will extend to all of the cities we serve.”

In San Francisco, the city will cover the $5.4 million annual cost to pay for students' $46 per credit tuition at City College of San Francisco and also provide a $250 stipend to low-income students.

“We think of public education as a right,” said Susan Lamb, City College's interim chancellor. “Rather than setting up economic barriers, we need to make sure students in K-14 have an opportunity to get an education.”

Students don’t have to apply for the San Francisco program, but are automatically enrolled and receive the additional stipends through the financial aid process, Lamb said.

“K-12 education -- we take for granted that it’s a right in this country, and high school education … it isn’t enough,” she said.

Despite having among the lowest tuition costs in the nation, a recent report from the Institute for College Access & Success shows that the total cost of college in California, which includes textbooks, transportation, food and housing, can add up for low-income students.

The report found that after subtracting grant aid, the community colleges, which often have the lowest tuition, did not have a lower net price than their neighboring public universities.

For instance, near Berkeley, two-year colleges had the highest net price, at $13,500 per year, compared to the University of California ($12,900) and the California State University ($11,700), according to the report.

But focusing on the free side of Promise programs may be undercutting the real impact of the initiatives, said Debbie Cochrane, vice president of TICAS.

“The most important component is they become a rallying point for a community,” she said. “It’s about getting community leadership on board and getting different colleges in an area to agree on alignment. Those things make a huge difference for students to get to and through schools.”

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