Free first-year tuition is only a start for community colleges

Sam Saeteurn works in the welding technology program at American River College in September.
Sam Saeteurn works in the welding technology program at American River College in September.

When Gov. Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 19, which will allow California community colleges to promise a tuition-free first year for first-time, full-time students, I joined the cheers of students, parents and the public.

But we should recognize that the struggle to lower the cost of attending college has only begun.


Every day, the 2.1 million students on our 114 campuses are preparing to transfer to four-year universities, earning certificates and associate degrees and preparing for jobs.

AB 19, by Assemblyman Miguel Santiago, D-Los Angeles, is not the first promise our state has made to students. Before this new law, California was a national leader in the College Promise movement. For more than 30 years, the community college system has waived tuition for students who cannot afford it. About 1 million students now receive assistance under what the most expansive program offered by any state.

Communities are pitching in by establishing local College Promise partnerships, which raise money that students can use for non-tuition expenses, such as textbooks, transportation, food and housing. Private funds could also be used to help with second-year tuition.

AB 19 has not been funded yet, and colleges will have to implement student success strategies to qualify for the money that we expect will be in the governor’s January budget proposal.

In some regions of the state, the cost of attending community college for some students is more than a California State University or University of California campus because of how the Cal Grant system is configured.

The chance to make community colleges tuition free is a big step forward. But more work remains to address the cost of college attendance.

Eloy Ortiz Oakley is chancellor of California Community Colleges. He can be contacted at