How San Francisco Student Activists Made College Free Again

City College of San Francisco will be the first in the nation to offer free tuition to all city residents.

s.e. smith

The City College of San Francisco science building will soon offer classes free of charge. (Epershandrea / Flickr)

This fall, San Francisco is set to offer something no other U.S. city does: tuition-free college for all residents, whether they’re low-income immigrants or the children of tech CEOs.

“Education is an essential public good. It should be a right and not a privilege.”

On February 6, following months of organizing by students, faculty and labor activists, Mayor Ed Lee and Supervisor Jane Kim announced a deal that will eliminate tuition at the City College of San Francisco (CCSF), one of the nation’s oldest and largest community colleges. Under the deal, the city will provide CCSF with $5.4 million in additional annual funding to cover the $46-per-credit fee for instate tuition, which otherwise would be paid by the majority of the school’s 60,000 students.

Non-tuition fees will remain in place, but qualifying full-time students may also receive up to $500 in annual financial assistance to help with these fees, books and living expenses. Part-time students can receive up to $200. The plan will be funded by a marginal tax increase on real estate transfers over $5 million, a measure the city’s voters approved by 62 percent in a November 2016 ballot initiative.

The announcement is particularly dramatic because, until recently, CCSF was on the brink of closure. In January, the college prevailed in a years-long battle with its accreditor, tasked with overseeing quality in higher education. Critics say the accreditor unfairly targeted CCSF because of influence by for-profit colleges, and that it rebuked the college over issues that had little to do with quality—for example, the so-called fiscal irresponsibility of providing healthcare to part-time faculty.

A lawsuit by the San Francisco City Attorney’s office prevented the shuttering of the college, but enrollment dropped by more than 30 percent during the accreditation crisis. As activists fought to keep the school open, they realized that eliminating tuition would help bring enrollment numbers back up, as well as fulfill the college’s mission to serve everyone in the community.

“We think education should be free,” says CCSF student Vivek “JJ” Narayan. “It’s an essential public good. It should be a right and not a privilege.”

San Francisco isn’t the only place that’s mulled the idea of free college recently. Even before the push to eliminate tuition at public colleges and universities became a centerpiece of Bernie Sanders’ campaign, many policy makers had endorsed the idea of free community college. It’s estimated that by 2020, 35 percent of job openings will require at least a bachelor’s degree, and another 30 percent will require an associate degree. In 2014, Tennessee announced that it would eliminate tuition for certain students enrolled in the state’s two-year colleges. In 2015, President Obama announced an initiative to push for free community college. Several other states—including Oregon, New York and Rhode Island—have since adopted versions of this policy.

But CCSF’s plan is unique: There are no income, enrollment or GPA requirements. Anyone who can demonstrate residency in the city (along with city and college employees, regardless of residence) can enroll in courses— full- or part-time, degree-track or not, fresh out of high school or in their 80s—without paying a dime in tuition. Students preparing for transfer to four-year schools are welcome, alongside those seeking workforce training and those interested in taking a few classes simply to expand their world.

Take Win-Mon Kyi, a 23-year-old second-generation American student of Asian-American studies and political science at CCSF. She plans to transfer to San Francisco State, a four-year school, in the fall. But she intends to keep attending some CCSF classes. Narayan, who also plans to transfer to a four-year school where he can study systems biology and economics, comments that CCSF offers intimate classes and support that State doesn’t—one reason he didn’t transfer earlier in his nearly five years of study at the college.

Kyi and Narayan emphasize that the new program won’t be perfect. International students, including some undocumented immigrants, won’t qualify unless they can demonstrate eligibility under AB540, a California law designed to enable undocumented people to attend college. CCSF has declared itself a “sanctuary campus” that does not collect data on student immigration status.

An earlier proposal, pushed by student and faculty activists, called for a $13 million budget in order to cover everyone taking classes at CCSF, including international and undocumented students, as well as more generous grants for low-income students. When voters approved the real estate tax increase in November 2016, the activists declared victory. But while the ballot measure was pitched to voters as a way to fund free community college, its language didn’t make this explicit. The next month, the mayor announced that, facing a budget shortfall, he planned to divert some of the new revenue to cover other city services. Students rallied at his office in protest, paving the way for the eventual $5.4 million compromise. Faculty and students hope this will provide a starting point for further expansion of college access in coming years—an idea that has broad support in San Francisco, they learned.

“Organizing was exhilarating and exciting,” says Kyi. “People understood that everyone would benefit.”

Alisa Messer, an English professor at CCSF who also serves as the political director at American Federation of Teachers 2121, the college’s union, points out public higher education was nearly free in California until the early 1970s, when then-Gov. Ronald Reagan pushed successfully to increase student fees, paving the way for charging tuition and changing the education landscape forever. CCSF remained free for residents until 1983, and Messer hopes that the college’s initiative will help once again normalize the idea of higher education as a public good.

“We have universal K-12 public education,” she says. “In San Francisco, we now have universal higher education as well.”

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s.e. smith is an essayist, journalist and activist is on social issues who has written for The Guardian, Bitch Magazine, AlterNet, Jezebel, Salon, the Sundance Channel blog, Longshot Magazine, Global Comment, Think Progress, xoJane, Truthout, Time, Nerve, VICE, The Week, and Reproductive Health Reality Check. Follow @sesmithwrites.
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