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San Francisco’s Free College Tuition Program Has Big Flaws

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Recently, the voters of San Francisco approved a tax on the rich to finance free tuition for many students attending City College of San Francisco (CCSF).  Money to pay for the program will be raised by a higher transfer tax on the sale of real estate selling for more than $5 million.  It is expected to raise $45 million in an average year.  This amount would more than cover the costs of this free tuition program that would come to about $13 million per year.  For those students who already receive a tuition waiver of about $1,400 a year for one who attends full-time, the free tuition program will provide money for the purchase of textbooks and supplies.

What could be better–a free tuition program that will benefit many students paid for by the rich.  Unfortunately, it has some serious problems.

To be eligible for its benefits, a student must either be a resident of San Francisco or work at least half-time in the city.  Otherwise, they must continue to pay as they do now even if they reside just over the border from San Francisco, in, for example, Daily City, and don’t work in San Francisco.

If a current San Francisco resident must move to another city such as Oakland as a result of being wrongfully evicted or from being gouged by a greedy landlord, that person will no longer be eligible for the free tuition program.  However, the greedy landlord who resides in San Francisco who attends CCSF will be eligible.

One who does not live in San Francisco is also eligible for free tuition by working there at least half-time.  What happens if the scheduled hours of this worker are reduced below half-time or the worker is laid-off?  Under these circumstances, at a time when enrolling in school to learn new skills is likely to be even more important and when one has less money, this worker might have to pay for tuition to continue attending CCSF.

Background Information

The free tuition program is seen as a means to help students and bolster CCSF’s enrollment that has declined by over 25% since the beginning of an accreditation crisis that began in 2012.     The accrediting agency decided in 2013 that the college should be closed even though its own 2012 report on the college “concluded…that the instructional programs in credit and non-credit programs provide high-quality instruction” and “confirmed that City College of San Francisco provides comprehensive and accessible student services.”1 In other words, CCSF was doing what a college is supposed to do: effectively educating and serving students. Hence, many viewed this accreditation crisis as manufactured for the purposes of downsizing and transforming CCSF, a college that predominantly serves working class students of color.  The downsizing would also provide an excuse for turning over much of the college’s property to “developers.”2

During its accreditation crisis, CCSF has experienced a state takeover and the displacement of its democratically elected board of trustees.  The imposed administration has “successfully” downsized and transformed the college by cutting the number of classes offered and by discouraging students from enrolling.3

The CCSF administration’s track record suggests it will probably require and spend resources burdening students with having to provide proof that they are eligible for the free tuition program.  Providing proof of San Francisco residency will present many students with difficulties.  They may not have their name on a lease or they are homeless and live in a temporary shelter or crash on the living room couch of a friend. This residency requirement would probably also result in some students who do not live in San Francisco making arrangements with friends to use their San Francisco address.  That will, at some point, be discovered and used by opponents to discredit the program.

Some 35 years ago, all California residents paid no tuition to attend any community college in the state.  To overcome the above mentioned problems, free tuition should be offered to all California residents.  Since most of a community college’s budget is funded by the state, money spent by the city to attract students would greatly enhance CCSF’s budget.  More students would presumably benefit San Francisco’s economy by spending money in the city.

An objection to CCSF offering free tuition for all California residents is that such a program could result in the poaching of potential students from another district.  That happens now when, for example, CCSF offers programs that are not offered elsewhere.  A student from another district deciding to attend CCSF to take advantage of its free tuition program would presumably have to spend more time and money to travel to CCSF.  This would discourage many students from taking advantaged of CCSF’s free tuition program. Plus, a free tuition program at CCSF for all California residents could pressure other districts to come up with a tax the rich plan to be able to offer their own students a similar program.

Unfortunately, this CCSF free tuition program could subsidize the federal government and not benefit some students.  Currently, a student paying tuition and for course materials such as textbooks may be eligible for a federal tax credit (a reduction in taxes) that covers all of these costs.  If the student does not pay these expenses (as could happen under the CCSF free tuition program,) the federal tax credit is unavailable.  This results in their financial situation remaining unchanged with the benefit received from the free tuition program leaving more money in the hands of the federal government!

The CCSF free tuition program appeared to have originated with San Francisco Supervisor Jane Kim.  It gained her heavy support from the CCSF faculty union leadership and was part of her platform when she ran and lost a seat for the state senate in 2016.  If she had been serious about free tuition and not using the advocacy for this particular program as a means to get elected, she would have promised in her campaign that, if elected, she would introduce legislation calling for ending community college tuition fees throughout state.   Her campaign website had no mention of her willingness to fight for free tuition statewide.

Other Problems

CCSF is very popular with San Francisco voters. In the 2016 election, despite receiving much negative media coverage since the start of its accreditation crisis, over 80% of the voters approved the renewal of a parcel tax measure to raise money dedicated to the college.  The tax initiative to fund the free tuition program also passed with almost 62% of the vote.  Under it, the tax money raised ends up in the city’s general fund meaning it does not have to be spent on the free tuition program despite the overwhelming support of the Board of Supervisors for that to happen.

Herein is the source of a problem. A sales tax initiative to raise revenue that was supposedly to be used for the homeless and for transportation services failed to be passed by the voters. Mayor Ed Lee, who favored the state takeover of CCSF and appears to be supportive of efforts to turn college property over to “developers,” has now decided that he needs the money raised for the free tuition program to fund the homeless and transportation programs that were to be funded by the sales tax. This has led Lee to favor using money intended for the free tuition program, (a tiny sum in a city with a 2016-17 budget of $9.6 billion that is $700 million more than the previous year,) to be reduced.  At this point, Lee is proposing to ignore the intent of the voters and favors providing the free tuition program with only $8.5 million over the next two years.  According to the SF Examiner:

“The mayor’s funding plan for CCSF falls well under the $13 million backers of the effort say is needed annually. The mayor’s plan is to spend just $500,000 in the current fiscal year to hire staff and improve a college database, and $4.25 million on the college in each of the next two fiscal years.”

And even though the SF Board of Supervisors have voted 9 to 1 to allocate $9million for the free tuition program for the fall term, the  SF Chronicle reported that the mayor “has indicated that he won’t veto the legislation — he simply won’t spend the money all at once.”

Even if the free tuition program is fully funded, the educational opportunities it offers will likely  be undermined by CCSF’s state imposed administration.  Starting in the fall of 2016, the administration has harmed programs by implementing its plans to reduce the number of classes an additional 25% over the next five years on top of the many that have already been eliminated. If there is an influx of students as a result of the free tuition program slated to start in the Fall of 2017, the administration shows no signs that it will increase the number of classes to accommodate more students.  Increasing the number of classes would interfere with its goal to increase faculty “productivity” which means increasing the average class size.  The resulting larger classes would presumably harm student equity efforts to help low achieving students to be more “successful” that the administration claims to support.

We live in a time when what can appear to be a good program that helps those who are less well-off can be deeply flawed.  The free tuition program at CCSF will clearly benefit some students.  At the same time, its shortcomings are likely to be more pronounced if the actions of San Francisco’s mayor and the college’s administrators are not vigorously resisted.

Footnotes

1 ACCJC 2012 Evaluation Report pgs. 37 and 18 at: http://www.ccsf.edu/ACC/Accreditation%20Evaluation%20Report%202012.pdf

See http://www.sfexaminer.com/ccsf-consider-building-educator-housing-former-civic-center-campus/ (read the article not the headline) and http://www.sfexaminer.com/ccsf-cuts-11-5-million-deal-developers-fiscal-cliff-looms/

3 One example: Just before the start of the 2016 spring term, the state imposed Special Trustee was quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle expressing words that discourage students from enrolling:  “We’re not a very attractive partner right now. People don’t know if we’ll be open a year from now.”

See at bottom of article: http://www.sfgate.com/education/article/CCSF-executive-Art-Tyler-resigns-amid-controversy-6744005.php

Rick Baum teaches Political Science at City College of San Francisco. He is a member of AFT 2121.

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