Two-year tuition-free community college comes to California: Hundreds of students at Sierra College are eligible for the program, according to an administrator | TheUnion.com

Two-year tuition-free community college comes to California: Hundreds of students at Sierra College are eligible for the program, according to an administrator

Sam Corey
Staff Writer

Community college recently became more affordable for many students.

That’s the hope of the state, at least.

On June 27, Gov. Gavin Newsom extended the California College Promise Grant, allowing first-time, full-time community college students tuition-free college for two years, according to a state budget report.

Notably, the fees related to books, transportation and living expenses, as well as health and student center costs, are not covered by the extended grant.

As of Aug. 6, 885 students will be eligible for the program at Sierra College, according to Jeannette Bischoff, executive assistant to Sierra College’s president’s office. The Grass Valley campus has about 3,000 students and the college maintains 18,000 overall.

Tuition at Sierra College for state residents is $46 per unit, according to the school website, which totals $552 for 12 units of coursework.

Lacy Nicole DeHart is attending Sierra College as a freshman this year. She’s looking forward to taking advantage of the state’s program.

“It’s a good way to experiment and to open kids to college,” said DeHart. The incoming freshmen mentioned she still needs to pay for things like her computer. Still, she estimated that two semesters at Sierra College would have cost her $3,600, including outside costs – a much higher number than what she is currently paying.

“It really incentivizes students to check it out at the very least,” said Bischoff. The executive assistant said she hopes the program will help retain more of the student population.

Although students must complete a financial aid application, there is no income requirement to qualify for two years of free tuition.

The change is closely related to how community college was originally designed in the state, said Stephanie Ortiz, executive dean at Sierra College’s Nevada County campus.

“I’m glad to see the state passing legislation so we can return to a similar situation,” she said.

While Ortiz acknowledged it can be difficult for students to take 12 units of classes (and therefore declared full-time), data shows it’s better to incentivize this path.

“The research is clear,” she said. “When students start college on a full-time basis, they are more likely to complete it.”

EFFECT

On Aug. 7, David Briceno wrote a column in The Union suggesting free tuition does not equate with free college. That is, there are hefty living expenses students must bear aside from those in the classroom.

Bischoff acknowledged the legitimacy of this perspective. She said the Sierra College Foundation estimates more than 3,500 students earn below $15,000 annually “yet, do not qualify for any state or federal financial assistance.”

Additionally, the foundation estimates that half of the state’s college student population have experienced hunger and 60% have faced housing insecurity.

Sierra College maintains a Student Emergency Fund, granting students up to $500 in emergency expenses to “keep the students in school,” “eliminate stress,” retain students and instill them with confidence. There is a food pantry on both the Nevada County and Rocklin campuses, Bischoff added.

To afford school, Ortiz said many western Nevada County Sierra College students apply for scholarships — about 25% of them — even though they only makeup 10% of the general student population at the aggregated campuses.

The governor’s budget also includes increasing funding for student mental health services, basic needs programming, instructional equipment and student housing.

But Bischoff wasn’t sure how much of that financial support would actually fall to community colleges.

“It’s a little too early to tell yet what the effect will be,” she said.

To contact Staff Writer Sam Corey, email scorey@theunion.com or call 530-477-4219.


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