Wildlife biologist Dena Emmerson was one of nearly 5,000 new students to register at City College of San Francisco last fall, after she decided to learn marketing so that she could launch a public outreach campaign to promote conservation. That semester, she took four marketing classes for less than the cost of a lunch in the city’s Financial District.
CCSF’s publicly funded Free City program fully pays for students’ tuition, minus the cost of books, a $17 health fee, and $3 for online registration. Savings can add up to $552 per semester for a full-time student. Students don’t have to earn a certain grade point average or fall into a specific income bracket to be eligible. Emmerson only had to provide proof of her San Francisco address.
“We all get stuck in our little bubbles at work and where we live,” Emmerson says. “But because I took these classes, I had conversations with people that I wouldn’t have spoken to otherwise.”
The program’s tuition funds come from a real estate transfer tax on all commercial and residential buildings in the city sold for more than $5 million. “We really consider Free City access an opportunity in social justice. It’s leveling the playing field,” says Free City program director Leslie Milloy. More than 70 percent of City College students are eligible for state financial aid. “We definitely have a population that is not wealthy,” Milloy says.
Since Free City’s launch last fall, CCSF has doled out more than $2 million for tuition, and enrollment has spiked 17 percent. The appeal of free tuition accounts for some of this surge. Some is also due to CCSF’s resurgence following a very public five-year battle to keep its accreditation, when it lost 30,000 of its 90,000 students. After administrators announced in early 2016 that the college would stay open, student enrollment jumped significantly at a time when it was down at most other community colleges in California and many across the country, says Milloy.
Although it’s too early to determine student satisfaction with Free City, faculty say many students in their classes would not be there if not for the program. Other students who enrolled at CCSF in the past can now benefit from Free City after hitting a cap on state aid.
Rafael Mandelman, a CCSF trustee who is running for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, hopes to beef up stipends in the next year. “The program is still a work in progress,” he says. He’s dissatisfied that currently some undocumented students do not receive a tuition break and that all students must still pay tuition during the summer session.
Even with Free City, low-income San Franciscans are likely to struggle financially to attend college, says Michelle Miller-Adams, a research fellow at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research. Free City—like the Excelsior Scholarship in the State University of New York (SUNY) system—subtracts need-based grants such as California Promise and Pell grants from the tuition coverage it awards. “This means that for low-income students, a two-year college program like Free City does not bring much new money to the table,” she says. As a result, many students still can’t afford to take the time off work to attend class and study.
That policy stands in contrast to other programs in the growing movement of place-based scholarships, including one of the first, the Kalamazoo Promise, which since 2005 has covered full tuition for Kalamazoo, Michigan, public college students without subtracting state or federal grants. While CCSF’s program falls short of Kalamazoo’s in this way, they share the same goal, Miller-Adams says: “to help those just above the Pell cutoff know that they can afford at least a two-year degree, and to promote messaging around the benefits of some kind of postsecondary education.”
Indeed, unlike the SUNY program, for which students must fall under a $125,000 household income threshold to quality, Free City places no income cap on eligibility. In initial reports, Milloy and her colleagues have seen an increase in students like Emmerson, who already hold bachelor’s degrees and may come from middle-class backgrounds but want to boost their career prospects or make a career change. “It’s a way to enhance economic growth for San Francisco overall, because more people have more opportunity to move forward with their financial and their educational goals,” Milloy says.