California Makes First Year of Community College Free

October 13 was a busy day for California Governor Jerry Brown. Not only did he sign Assembly Bill 485, mandating that all cats and dogs in pet stores come from rescue shelters, he also signed Assembly Bill 19, making the first year of community college free for California students.

With the goal of boosting enrollment and college completion in order to address a shortage of college-educated students in California, AB 19 provides free education for first-time students who apply for a waiver and register for at least 12 units at any of the state’s 114 community colleges.

This means that beginning January 1, 2018, an additional 19,000 students who don’t already have fee waivers for low-income students will no longer have to pay tuition. The cost to the state will be around $31 million a year.

“This is a win for students, Californians and the economy,” said Kevin McCarty, one of the three Assemblymen who authored the bill. “We want to make sure students graduate from college with reduced debt.”

Students will still be responsible for other educational and living expenses, but AB 19 creates the “California College Promise” program, with the goal of eventually continuing the free K-12 education and providing higher education at no cost for all. 

As it stands now, around half of California’s 2.1 million community college students already receive fee waivers on the basis of financial need, and these colleges cost just $46 per credit, making them the cheapest in the country. But four-year universities in California actually provide more financial aid than community colleges.

California is not the first state to offer tuition-free higher education. In 2015, President Obama put forward the idea of making community college free nationwide. During the 2016 presidential election campaigns, both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders added their support for the idea, although no Republicans on the federal level have joined them.

But several states, both blue and red have taken up the idea. In most cases, students receive scholarships that cover the cost of the tuition after other financial aid has been used up.

Rhode Island instituted free tuition for recent high-school graduates at its community colleges beginning in the fall of 2017. To be eligible, students have to enroll full-time, maintain a 2.5 GPA and commit to working or continuing their education in state after finishing their degree. 

Tennessee has a similar program beginning next year, when anyone who has been a resident of the state can get tuition-free education at community colleges provided they don’t already have a degree.

The state of New York has gone further and made tuition free for students at both community colleges and four-year colleges, provided that their family doesn’t earn more than $125,000 a year. Like Rhode Island, students must enroll full-time, and after graduation they are required to live and work in the state for the number of years that they received the financial aid.

Other states that offer some version of tuition-free education are Oregon, Arkansas, Minnesota, South Dakota and Louisiana.

Why is it important to provide free higher education?

Perhaps I am biased. I grew up in England at a time when low-income students who gained entrance into a university had their tuition, as well as all other costs, paid for them. With a father who was a vicar in the Church of England and a stay-at-home mother, I qualified, and took my free higher education for granted.

In 2017, about 84 percent of Americans believe that a higher education is very (47 percent) or extremely (37 percent) important in order to do well in life. Some jobs require only a high school diploma, but for most professional careers, applicants need some type of higher education. 

The 21st century job market is extremely competitive, but being college-educated generally provides more job security: Employers tend to value those with a college degree over those with only a high-school diploma. 

If only for that reason, it’s crucial that students at all income levels have access to higher education: It’s good for them and it’s good for the economy of the U.S. A country is built upon the excellence of its education at all levels.

But attending college brings so many more benefits: The ability to think analytically, to understand complex topics and to communicate ideas effectively in writing and in speech. As a result of this training, students develop confidence and self-esteem.

Attending college also means realizing passions, which for me meant discovering my ability to speak several languages and work and travel abroad. At college students may mingle with a broad range of peers from many different backgrounds and ethnicities, and develop a sense of who they are in the world.

Higher education should be available for everyone, and we applaud Governor Brown’s decision to take the first step in providing this opportunity for all students.


Photo Credit: thinkstock


Peggy B
Peggy B8 months ago


Marie W
Marie Wabout a year ago

Thanks for sharing.

Lesa D
Past Member about a year ago


thank you Judy...

Jessica C
Jessica C1 years ago

thanks - that's helpful

Sarah Hill
Sarah Hill1 years ago

Someone has to pay for every freebie anyone receives! If the freebie comes from the government, it's the taxpayers. Should someone with no children really pay for someone else's child's college? That is not fair!

Mike R
Mike R1 years ago

Excellent Gov. Brown

Mike R
Mike R1 years ago

Excellent Gov. Brown

Mike R
Mike R1 years ago

Excellent Gov. Brown

Chris Ringgold
Chris Ringgold1 years ago

Governor Brown of California made the right decision - a wise choice, indeed.

Danuta W
Danuta Watola1 years ago

Thanks for sharing