By James Schuelke, Director of Engagement & Advocacy
Free community college may sound like a fantasy, but it’s happening right now in nearly 200 communities across the nation. Governors, mayors, and countless others are working across party lines to help residents advance their lives through free community college. This strengthens local businesses and economies. In fact, over the next decade, six out of ten jobs will require some form of education beyond high school. Perhaps no state understands this better than California, where nearly 50 communities are delivering free community college through “College Promise” programs. So what’s the secret to their success?
My work advancing these programs in California has shown me that our hardworking students, bold leaders, and local partners are uniting to expand opportunity in our state. Together, these groups know that free community college is a wise investment in the future.
Of course, free community college is only a wise investment because of the inspiring people it benefits. While studying at Ventura and Cuesta community colleges years ago, I met many of these dedicated students. They came from working class and immigrant families; they were single-parents, veterans, and middle-aged students, all determined to improve their lives through education. They are the real inspiration behind California’s free community college programs. Take the Santa Barbara City College Promise, which provides free education to students like Leslie Marin, who had the grades and ambition to attend a four-year university but whose family couldn’t afford the cost. “It was frustrating,” Leslie shares. “Why did I try so hard for four years and still have doors closed? Every student should have the opportunity to go to college and…keep on going forward with their life and be successful.” Today, Leslie is achieving her full potential through Santa Barbara’s free community college program.
Leslie’s story is inspiring, but she isn’t alone. All across California, students face challenging circumstances and rising college costs. They don’t need a handout—they need a fair shake. That’s why leaders up and down the state are taking action by making community college free in California.
Leading the charge are the state’s community college leaders and administrators, who are resolved to open their campus gates wider for deserving students like Leslie. This year, Governor Jerry Brown and legislators also took action by investing millions of dollars to expand free community college efforts. Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom, rural city councils, and big city mayors from Los Angeles, San Jose, and Oakland, among others, are also leading the movement. They are working with school districts, businesses, and local leaders to build coalitions that cross party and institutional lines. These advocates provide the funding to build sustainable programs with the support needed for student success.
This groundswell of momentum didn’t happen overnight. It takes individuals spearheading a vision for a college-going culture in their communities.California is filled with these champions. Take Eloy Oakley, a community college graduate and military veteran, who built broad public support for one of the state’s first free community college programs while serving as president of Long Beach City College. “Our partners are completely dedicated to the success of the Long Beach College Promise,” shares Oakley, who now serves as chancellor of the California Community College system. With participation from Long Beach’s city, school district, and university leaders, the Long Beach College Promise has helped nearly 15,000 students attend college and graduate.
California’s striking combination of leaders like Eloy Oakley, the diverse coalitions of local support they galvanize, and inspiring students like Santa Barbara’s Leslie Marin are making free community college a game changer here in the Golden State. By making these investments in its people and economy, California is primed to continue leading the nation well into the future.