‘Free college’ mantra embraced by California’s two-year schools

Oakland High School senior Emma Lieu, 17, is photographed after taking placement tests at Merritt College in Oakland, Calif., on Wednesday, May 11, 2016. Lieu will be the first in her family to go to college, and is part of a new initiative called The Oakland Promise, which offers college scholarships and support to Oakland public school students. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)

Oakland High School senior Emma Lieu, 17, is photographed after taking placement tests at Merritt College in Oakland, Calif., on Wednesday, May 11, 2016. Lieu will be the first in her family to go to college, and is part of a new initiative called The Oakland Promise, which offers college scholarships and support to Oakland public school students. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)

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A year after President Obama raised the challenge to make community colleges free for all, two-year colleges across California are responding with a flurry of tuition-free offers, scholarships and other efforts to lower costs and boost dismal completion rates.

They are reaching out to local foundations, agencies and businesses to support the cause.

“We don’t want our kids to go to college and have them experience failure and debt,” said Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf who is championing a $39 million citywide initiative called Oakland Promise that includes a free semester of community college for new graduates. “We want them to finish. We want them to have that degree.”

While Oakland’s initiative is far more ambitious and costly than most of the other new programs inspired by Obama’s America’s College Promise, more than a dozen other colleges statewide are also advertising free tuition, extra advising and mentoring or expanded summer orientation programs for the coming academic year.

Mission College in Santa Clara is giving $1,000 scholarships to local students — roughly equivalent to a year’s tuition — through a new program called Mission First. West Valley College in Saratoga is offering a tuition-free first semester to 600 local high school graduates. Skyline College in San Bruno touts a scholarship for recent high school graduates bearing the motto “Get in. Get through. Get out … on time!” And a pending legislative package, the California College Promise, would make state financial aid available to more community college students to help them pay for housing, transportation and books.

“President Obama elevated the idea in the broader conversation that community college should be free,” said Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Century Foundation think tank. Even though Congress won’t fund the proposal, he said, the president “brought the idea to the fore and so lots of local, innovative leaders have grabbed onto it.”

California’s extensive network of community colleges serves more than 2 million students per year, roughly two-thirds of the state’s college-goers. But less than half of all students who set out to earn a degree or transfer to a university accomplish their goal within six years, according to data from the system’s chancellor. The success rate for black and Latino students is below 40 percent.

Oakland’s sweeping proposal to triple the number of college graduates is expected to cost $39 million in the first four years alone. It includes $500 college savings accounts for babies born into poverty; mentors and scholarships for college students; and a semester of free tuition at the city’s four community colleges.

Schaaf said she was more passionate about the cause than any other in the city.

The initiative will work with students such as Emma Lieu, the first person in her family to go to college. “I’m just happy I have financial help. I don’t have to worry about looking for money, getting loans,” said Lieu, 17, who was awarded an Oakland Promise scholarship to study at the two-year Merritt College and plans to transfer to the University of California, possibly to study chemistry.

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