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California’s Legislature and governor may have officially signed off on covering tuition costs for the first year of community college last month, but many of the state’s colleges have already been offering some type of tuition-free program on their own.

And now questions remain about how those more than 40 tuition-free plans in the state will change once the statewide California Promise goes into effect. Despite the measure being signed into law, the statewide tuition-free initiative is dependent on funding that will need to be secured in the state budget next year, which many college officials are optimistic will happen. The legislation is estimated to cost $31 million.

“We definitely see the recent legislation and the flourishing local Promise partnerships as complementing each other, not competing,” said Paul Feist, vice chancellor for communications in the California Community Colleges system, via email, adding that the law is designed to work with local programs.

Although the law is still in need of funding from the Legislature, it provides some flexibility once funding is available and would allow colleges to use the money to waive some or all fees up to one year for first-time students, although the colleges are not required to do so. So students could only benefit from the statewide initiative if colleges choose to participate in the California Promise. But those colleges should also use the funds to “advance the goals of the legislation.”

And advancing those goals, which include increasing completion rates, eliminating achievement gaps and increasing transfer rates to the state’s public universities, has many colleges already considering different ways to use the dollars they have in their current Promise programs.

“When [Assembly Bill 19] is fully funded, individual campuses that have raised funds can choose how to use them in addition to what students will be eligible for through the new law,” said Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley in a recent newsletter to the system. “For instance, campus private funds could be used to help fund the second-year tuition, or for books, supplies or other expenses.”

Among the state’s 114 community colleges, Mary Rauner, a senior research associate at WestEd, estimates there are 49 tuition-free or Promise programs.

Rauner said while it’s still too early for many of these programs to have a plan for how to run alongside the statewide initiative, she’s heard plenty of thoughts and ideas.

“And they run the gamut from extending to two years to using funding for add-ons like books, beyond what existing programs offer … I’ve even heard people at various points talk about child care and nontuition fees,” she said.

Take, for instance, the Long Beach College Promise, a partnership between the city, state university, community college and K-12 system, which has existed for about a decade. Just two years ago, the Long Beach program expanded to offer a full year of free tuition to Long Beach City College.

“In Long Beach, we think the statewide promise is a significant step forward,” said Terri Carbaugh, associate vice president for media and government relations for Long Beach College Promise. “It provides that flexibility because California is so large and every region is so different. It incentivizes that behavior but doesn’t tell regions how to do it. Everyone is free to design their own initiative.”

Carbaugh said the statewide initiative to provide a tuition-free year has allowed Long Beach Promise officials to examine what more they can offer. Nearly 80 percent of first-time, full-time students at Long Beach City College are already attending for free because of the California Promise Grant, formerly known as the Board of Governors fee waiver. The name of the fee waiver, which has existed for more than 30 years, was changed in September to reflect the state’s commitment to waiving tuition for low-income students.

So if the statewide initiative is fully funded next year, Long Beach could consider funding a second year, or “we would have the flexibility to create grants for housing, transportation or books to really begin addressing the full cost of attending college in Long Beach,” Carbaugh said.

Unlike typical statewide tuition-free initiatives that often place prerequisites on students to receive the scholarship, California’s new law has created participation requirements for colleges. Which means those that already have thriving Promise or tuition-free programs may be in a better position to use the statewide program.

Rauner said it also remains to be seen what will come from the colleges that don’t participate in a local tuition-free program. Some could be waiting to see how the statewide Promise is funded before launching any new local initiative.

The law, for instance, requires colleges to partner with K-12 school districts to educate families on college opportunities, financial aid and offer preparatory courses. The colleges should also use multiple measures for placement and participate in the California Community College Guided Pathways Grant Program. It will be up to the chancellor’s office to determine that colleges qualify for the statewide initiative.

“Because the Promise movement is really a grassroots movement, that probably bodes well for its long-term success,” Carbaugh said, adding that as opposed to the Legislature mandating institutions participate in a tuition-free program, the opposite has happened -- the Legislature is backing up existing programs in Long Beach, Oakland and Los Angeles.

The Oakland Promise, which is connected to the East Bay College Fund, for instance, doesn’t just help students with college expenses but is also offering to open college savings accounts for children in the school district.

“All the studies will show that money makes a certain degree of difference, but it’s the persistent support and the advising, too,” said Diane Dodge, executive director of the East Bay College Fund. “When you’re in poverty, just because you’re in college that doesn’t mean it’s any easier … supporting students through four or five or six years is a lot.”

Many of the local tuition-free programs, however, have received funding through private donations or local taxes, and there is a concern that the statewide free initiative may lead to donors finding other ways to help students outside the many Promise programs.

“I have heard some concerns and I know the state has talked about being really careful about how to message this funding,” Rauner said. “It will be a little bit of a challenge for some of the programs, especially those that have worked hard on developing relationships with private donors.”

Carbaugh said she would encourage fund-raisers to make sure donors know that the first year of free tuition is just one step and students still face many other expenses.

“Our hope is that donors, either through education or inherently in our region, will understand, in L.A. in particular … the vast majority of our students are disadvantaged students, so just helping them with tuition is not enough, and helping them in any way you can is a very valuable need,” said Drew Yamanishi, dean of the first-year experience at Los Angeles City College.

The Los Angeles Promise also covers one year of free tuition for students attending any of the nine Los Angeles Community College District institutions. Yamanishi said officials in L.A. are pondering the same issue as other local initiatives about how to combine with the statewide Promise.

The Richmond Promise, which benefits high school students who live in Richmond or North Richmond -- about 10 miles north of Oakland -- already covers the full cost of attendance. The program is mostly funded by Chevron.

“This legislation reinforces the opportunity we have to proactively build in more financial literacy training for our students about short- and long-term financial management,” said Jessie Stewart, executive director, in an email. “We would welcome recommendations about how to leverage this legislation to make Richmond Promise dollars more impactful and possibly provide alternatives for students to save their scholarship dollars for transfer.”

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