Education

Here's how a plan for free community college for L.A. Unified grads could work

L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, alongside members of Los Angeles City Council, announces an initiative to provide $100 million to address the city's homeless population.
L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, alongside members of Los Angeles City Council, announces an initiative to provide $100 million to address the city's homeless population.
Los Angeles Mayor's Office

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Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has set a goal of ensuring all graduates of L.A. Unified high schools can attend one year of community college tuition-free starting in 2017, pledging to raise roughly $1.5 million from the city's business and philanthropic communities to help make it happen.

Local community college officials they would cover the rest of the costs, which would range from $3-5 million annually for the roughly 7,000 LAUSD grads currently enrolled in the Los Angeles Community College District.

But community college officials said Garcetti's fundraising push — which he announced in Thursday's State of the City speech — will jump-start a much broader effort.

Scott Svonkin, president of the college district's Board of Trustees, said the district hopes to eventually raise roughly $60 million for an endowment that would make L.A.'s "college promise" permanent.

"[The mayor's] offer of help is going to make this happen sooner, and it's going to help L.A. be the leader in the state and the nation on a college promise," Svonkin said.

The idea of ensuring free community college is an offshoot of a proposal President Obama unveiled in 2015. His plan, which ultimately failed to gather support in Congress, called for making two years of community college "as free and universal as high school" for students who attended at least half-time and maintained a 2.5 GPA.

Roughly half of the students in the L.A. Community College District receive a state-funded waiver that covers tuition for low-income students, Svonkin said. A student from a family of four, for instance, is eligible for this waiver if her family income was less than $35,700.

The purpose of L.A.'s "college promise," Svonkin explained, was to cover tuition for students who don't already qualify for these subsidies.

Tuition and fees comprise only a fraction of students' total costs of attending local community colleges, however. Books, supplies and transportation alone could cost an East Los Angeles College student nearly twice as much as his tuition.

"The cost of college attendance goes beyond tuition. It involves books, fees, transportation, childcare — other responsibilities," said L.A. Community College District Chancellor Francisco Rodriguez. "It's not so much the fees that can be an inhibitor or a barrier for community college-bound students."

But community college officials said that's part of the broader plan for the "college promise": that an expansion of their endowment might allow them to help needy students cover other costs of attendance.

"This gift will go directly to the students who are in our local high schools now," Rodriguez said, "who will be part of our future and our economy."