Santa Monica College reported its first case of coronavirus Thursday. (File photo)

California community colleges will offer first-time, full-time students two free years of tuition starting next year, mirroring a program that Santa Monica College launched last fall.

Governor Gavin Newsom is making good on a promise he made days after being sworn in to cover the cost of two years of community college for new students. This year’s state budget includes $42.6 million to support a second year of free tuition for about 33,000 low-income California students, Newsom announced last week.

Newsom said the expanded California College Promise program will help students improve their lives and build their futures.

“No one can argue with the fact that the full cost of attending institutions of higher learning is still far too high – both in California and across the country,” Newsom said in a press release. “But by offering two years of community college tuition-free, California is taking a meaningful step toward chipping away at the cost of higher learning for students and their families.”

SMC began offering two years of free tuition and fees, as well as up to $1,200 in textbook vouchers, in fall 2018.

Unlike the state program, the Santa Monica College Promise program provides free tuition regardless of financial need. However, 88% of the 1,881 students in SMC’s first cohort of participants also qualified for the state program, said Teresita Rodriguez, vice president of enrollment development.

Rodriguez said although the college was not the first California community college to offer free tuition, it was unique in extending the program to any student who graduated from a California high school that year. Students from 316 high schools participated in the program.

Most colleges with promise programs cover tuition for students in their local area, mainly due to funding constraints, Rodriguez added.

SMC President Kathryn Jeffery said the promise programs offered by the state and the college allow students to focus on their academics and devote less time to a job that they may have used to pay for tuition, fees and materials so they can graduate more quickly.

“For those who are working, they may be able to work fewer hours,” Jeffery said.

The programs also remove the uncertainty surrounding financial aid disbursement that prevents some students from enrolling in college straight out of high school, she added.

“They don’t have to wait for that first financial aid award — their tuition is paid for right away,” Jeffery said.

The assistance appears to have measurable results on student outcomes, Rodriguez said. The college is still conducting a full study of its first cohort of participants, but initial data shows that they outperformed their peers in first semester GPA and course completion rate.

The state budget also invests in $9 million for college students who are homeless or experiencing housing insecurity and $5 million to support veteran resource centers at community colleges. Additionally, a one-time increase of $4.75 million will support workforce development programs at some community colleges.

The California Community Colleges are the largest system of higher education in the nation, serving about 2.1 million students. Last year, the community colleges awarded more than 96,000 certificates and 160,000 degrees.

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