New funding provides two free years of community college. How it could help in Modesto

Many Californians can attend two full years of community college for free thanks to an expansion of the California College Promise Program in the 2019-20 budget.

With the California College Promise Program, first-time, full-time community college students can get their college career started with less fear of going into debt.

Previously, the program covered full-time students’ first year of tuition, but with the additional funding, tuition will be covered for the second year, as well as for part-time students with disabilities.

In-state tuition is about $46 per unit. The state already waived tuition for eligible low-income students under a separate grant program. The governor’s office estimates that about 33,000 more students may take advantage of the expanded tuition waiver program.

Students like Modesto resident Jessica Patrick, 17, who plans to attend Yuba College in the fall of next year, may find it easier to afford college.

“I plan on opening my own restaurant after I do the whole culinary program,” Patrick said. “In Oklahoma, because that’s where I’m originally from.”

Patrick said she’d be going to college even if she had to pay tuition but said making sure funding is secured for more students is important.

“It’s pretty amazing because some kids don’t get that chance,” Patrick said.

Eleven other states already make tuition free, and several others are working on it, according to a CNBC article written in March.

Bryan Justin Marks, Modesto Junior College’s dean of student services and public relations, said that the California Promise Program is the last piece of making sure that all students have an opportunity to go to California colleges.

Modesto Junior College is a Hispanic-serving institution, according to Marks.

About 7 percent of the Hispanic community living in the Stanislaus County has a college degree compared to 17 percent of the overall population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“That’s a very low number and it matches up against what the average salary is for someone living in Stanislaus County, which is about $45,000,” said Marks. “So anything that we can do to educate our students, to have them graduate, transfer to a four-year university is only going to produce better quality opportunities in the Central Valley and Stanislaus County.”

The bill doesn’t cover all students however; many part-time students will not qualify.

“Study after study shows that the longer a student is here (at a community college), the less likely they are to graduate,” Marks said, “and so when you come in taking less units, you’re pushing yourself out toward graduation.”

AB 2, which expands the California Promise Program to part-time students with a disability, was authored by Assembly Member Miguel Santiago, D-Los Angeles. Santiago also wrote AB 19, the bill that originally created the California Promise Program.

Before joining the assembly, Santiago served on the Los Angeles Community College District’s board, which already offered its community colleges for free. The program was successful there, and he wanted to expand the program statewide.

The Los Angeles Community College District found that 24 percent more students joined the community college from high school and doubled the number of students completing their English and math transfer requirements in their first academic year.

Santiago said the program excludes most part-time students to encourage going to school full-time.

“Part time students only have a 30 percent success rate, so they want to push for that full-time enrollment,” Santiago said. “More people going to full time is to get people into higher success rates.”

Last semester, about 66 percent of Modesto Junior College’s student body were part-time students, according to the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office.

The bill also targets first-time students, Santiago said, because he hopes to catch students young when the cost of living is far lower and his goal is to help create a pipeline of students to the California State University system though free community college from dual enrollment in high schools.

Knowing that the first several years of college are paid for can help students plan out their futures, according to Karen Gordon, principal at Valley Charter High School in Modesto. A significant number of her students are dual-enrolled at the community college.

“Most of our students are not in a position to go to a four-year due to the cost,” Gordon said. “They either can’t afford it, or their parents make too much money, so they don’t qualify for aid and need to take out loans.”

According to Gordon, being able to afford to go to school full time is a luxury.

“A student’s tuition paid for is well and good, but they still need to pay rent and buy food,” Gordon said.

Students then get low-paying jobs because they haven’t finished their education and need jobs that can flex around their school hours, and this drags out how long it takes for them to get through college, according to Gordon. She said getting students through school and into the workforce as soon as possible should be the goal.

The Promise Program requires every student apply for FAFSA. Some colleges use money from the program for purposes other than free tuition, like providing grants to needy students for books and other expenses.

Santiago said any barrier removed from students will help with college enrollment.

“It will take a couple of years to aggregate the data,” Santiago said. “But my gut is you will find that it will capture new students who weren’t going to college before the first two years were free.”

Modesto Junior College Student Body President Mikayla Ramirez doesn’t pay tuition thanks to a separate state aid program.

“It’s very important to me because my student success is everything to me,” Ramirez said. “I really hate to see that students either drop classes or don’t come to school because of a financial barrier.”

This story is part of a collaborative project between McClatchy and seniors in the journalism program at Sacramento State University. For more information about the program, or to send a message, visit