Free community college is not always affordable. New bill could help poorest students

For Modesto Junior College student Jerry Morales, building a better future for himself means going to college and getting a degree, something no one else in his family has ever done before.

As a young adult in his 20s, Morales is doing it on his own with the help of financial aid, including tuition assistance. But his current aid is not enough. While trying to succeed as a student, Morales is also working part-time jobs to make ends meet. It’s a delicate balancing act. Simply surviving is a real challenge.

This year, California can help students like Morales by supporting a new program that will stop leaving behind the students most in need.

Senate Bill 291 will serve the needs of students of all ages by creating a need-based aid program to make community college more affordable.

Far too many community college students in California are forced to decide between buying textbooks for class or making rent, eating a healthy meal or buying bus fare to campus.


As living costs continue to rise, it’s clear that the true cost of attending college is more than tuition. Financial aid — especially the aid available to community college students — generally does not cover the cost of rent, gas, food or textbooks. Inability to afford these costs can derail community college students.

California’s state budget offers the lowest per pupil funding to community colleges, and existing financial aid programs do little to offer support for students working their way through school. The fact that more than 40 percent of community college students are 25 or older and are already working adults requires a new solution to ensure their educational success.

Connie Leyva new
Connie Leyva

Eloy Ortiz Oakley
Eloy Ortiz Oakley

Existing financial aid is not enough. In 2017-18, the average total amount of grant aid available to low-income recipients attending a community college was half of the amount available to California State University students and less than a quarter of the amount available to University of California students.

The numbers show why this is such a glaring problem: 67 percent of the 2.1 million California community college students come from diverse ethnic backgrounds. About half come from California’s lowest-income families, compared to one in four for CSU and one in seven for UC. Yet, most grant funds in California are currently targeted for the CSU and UC systems.

Attending a California community college is often more expensive than other public options because the aid that is available does not match student needs. The Institute for College Access and Success estimates that UC students’ total costs are 56 percent more than community college students’ total costs, but UC students get over 300 percent more grant aid.

The additional grant aid more than covers the cost difference between the colleges, leaving UC students better positioned to attend college full time without excessive work or debt.

While California’s College Promise Grant goes far to support low-income and first-time, full time community college students in paying their actual schooling fees, it does not reflect the total cost of attendance. The actual cost of attending a community college for a student living independently is more than $20,000 annually when housing, transportation, textbooks and personal items are taken into account.

Today, a California community college student paying no fees and receiving the maximum aid possible would still face a deficit of over $6,000. And, under the current structure, only five percent of community college students receive the maximum level of financial aid.

Under SB 291, California would consider the total cost of education for students like Morales, including housing, transportation, food, books and supplies.

California’s future depends on the ability of all students to meet their educational and professional goals. SB 291 is a critical bill aimed at increasing community college student completion and transfer rates, enhancing student economic mobility and closing achievement gaps for students who have historically been left behind.

The new grant program will empower students and help them thrive economically and in life — not simply survive.

Connie Leyva is a Democratic California State Senator from Chino. Eloy Ortiz Oakley is Chancellor of California Community Colleges.
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