Obama’s community college plan spurs interest in California, but many questions remain

Holly Gibson of Sacramento reviews the syllabus for her new psychology class on the first day of school at Sacramento City College in August  2009.
Holly Gibson of Sacramento reviews the syllabus for her new psychology class on the first day of school at Sacramento City College in August 2009.

California community college leaders and students said they are optimistic about President Barack Obama’s proposal to waive costs at their campuses, but it’s unclear how much the plan would improve access in a state that already boasts the lowest fees in the nation.

The plan, which Obama rolled out Friday in Tennessee, calls for $60 billion in federal funds over the next decade to pay for two years of community college tuition for students across the country. In return, states would pick up a quarter of the cost, and students would be required to maintain a 2.5 grade-point average.

Though he is awaiting more details, California Community Colleges Chancellor Brice Harris said the promise of free college would result in more students attending the state’s 112 campuses, as well as more moving from part-time to full-time status.

“One of the things that hasn’t been talked about much is the money worry that students have about how much college costs,” Harris said. “Many times they think they can’t afford it, when many times they really can. It will gin up the conversation.”

Free tuition could entice students now headed to four-year universities to consider starting at community college instead.

“We’ve had such a push right now – four-year, four-year, four-year,” said Bruce Armes, lead counselor at San Juan Unified. “We need to help students understand, when it comes to cutting costs, that (community college) is a real viable option.”

Harris said the state’s community college system has plenty of room for more students. Enrollment in the system is currently 2.1 million, compared to 2.7 million in 2007-08 just before the recession. The college system’s capacity has expanded even more due to a “dramatic” increase in online offerings, and it has enough bond money to build additional facilities.

Perhaps the biggest unknown is whether the federal proposal would help students beyond tuition. Harris said extending aid to cover books or other educational costs is “not inconceivable” because the Obama plan cites a national community college average tuition of $3,800 annually for full-time students, much higher than California’s full-time cost of $1,104.

“What we see as a challenge is, even though they have relatively low fees, (students) have a high cost of living,” said Audrey Dow of the nonprofit Campaign for College Opportunity, which focuses on improving student access to higher education in California. “Despite the low fees, students are still struggling to be able to go full time.”

She is hoping that federal funds offset state dollars, freeing up more money for colleges to improve course offerings and increase tutoring, peer counseling and access to technology.

Low fees, student aid and the availability of fee waivers may mean that Obama’s proposal, called America’s College Promise, may have a bigger impact on California’s middle class then its low-income families.

Though Sierra Joint Community College District students face fewer financial barriers, 60 percent receive some sort of financial aid, said Chancellor William Duncan.

“The rising cost of higher education is on all of our minds,” Duncan said. “(Parents) start to think about how you are going to pay for college for everybody, and it gets sort of tricky.”

At the Espresso Metro coffee shop on 11th Avenue near Sacramento City College, several students said they were pleased to hear about the Obama plan.

Matthew Ratliff, 19, in his second year at the campus, said he works hard to make ends meet. He said he used to receive financial aid but that he couldn’t qualify for a fee waiver after his father started receiving disability insurance payments.

“I had to borrow from both my dad and my aunt,” he said.

Ratliff pays $280 for his portion of rental costs in a home he shares with two roommates. He also has utility costs, transportation, clothing and food, he said. That outstrips the $800 a month he earns at his minimum-wage job at a Wingstop restaurant.

“An opportunity to save any money would be awesome,” Ratliff said. “It would help me out tremendously.”

Call The Bee’s Diana Lambert, (916) 321-1090. Follow her on Twitter @dianalambert. Bee staff writer Loretta Kalb contributed to this report.