USA Education First Look

San Francisco will offer free college tuition to residents (+video)

Under a deal made with the city, City College of San Francisco will offer free tuition to San Francisco residents, but some observers worry that the deal leaves out some undocumented residents.

Students walk to class on the campus of San Francisco City College in San Francisco in 2003.
Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP/File | Caption

City College of San Francisco will begin offering free tuition to the city’s residents as part of an experimental partnership between the school and the city.

Mayor Ed Lee announced an agreement to budget $5.4 million in tuition for the college Monday. Officials say that will cover tuition for current students and allow the school to expand enrollment by 20 percent. Low-income students who qualify will also see the cost of their books covered in small grants.

“We’re making City College free for all San Francisco residents, and that’s really exciting,” Jane Kim, who led the effort, told The San Francisco Examiner. “This is just the beginning of our free City College program.”

The funding, which comes from a ballot-approved tax, is expected to be made available early in the 2017 school year. Residents who have lived in California for at least one year are eligible for the free education benefits.  

San Francisco isn’t the first city to test the waters of free tuition. Over the past decade, similar programs have cropped up in Oregon, Tennessee, Minnesota, and Michigan, although many lack universal coverage. As college tuition rates have ballooned and manufacturing and labor jobs have declined, the need for higher education has grown, often in contrast to its accessibility.

Debates over free college tuition dominated the 2016 Democratic primary race between Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont and Hillary Clinton. While such programs have fallen off the docket as President Trump’s administration seeks other goals, some municipalities have tested programs that would ease or eliminate tuition for some residents.

And as The Christian Science Monitor previously reported, free tuition can have a lasting impact on not only college students, but also younger students in public schools and a city’s culture and economy. A 2005 tuition scholarship initiative launched in Kalamazoo, Mich., has revitalized the rust belt town, breathing new life and energy into the city’s public schools and providing students who would not have gone to college the funding to do so. While the experimental approach has seen several hiccups and exposed new challenges in the city’s culture, its recipients and other Kalamazoo residents have hailed it a success.

“It changes the perception of Kalamazoo as yet another dying, cold Midwest urban center into a place that’s pretty cool,” Michelle Miller-Adams, a researcher who has written two books on the Kalamazoo program, previously told the Monitor, noting that the success and impact of the scholarship comes by offering it to all families, rather than as a welfare program. “If you want the system to change, the community to change, the schools to change, you don’t want to say this is for poor children.”

Some have raised issues with San Francisco’s plan, noting that it may exclude undocumented immigrants attending or seeking to enroll in the college who have not lived in California for a year. Officials say they will consider expanding funding to cover these vulnerable students, who receive protection under San Francisco’s sanctuary city designation, once they know the number who may be facing higher fees.

The agreement awaits approval from the college’s Board of Trustees, which plans to review the initiative Thursday, according to the Examiner.

“It’s important that we’re able to honor the will of the voters and hopefully have this up and running by this fall,” Tom Temprano, member of the CCSF Board of Trustees, told the Examiner. “We can’t wait to do that, and this obviously is going to be a huge and important tool for us to restore our enrollment.”

This report contains material from the Associated Press.