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California could offer a free year of community college for all first-time students, regardless of income, potentially benefiting hundreds of students at Santa Rosa Junior College.

A bill waiving first-year tuition for full-time students at the state’s 114 community colleges garnered bipartisan support from legislators before being sent to Gov. Jerry Brown last week for a signature. The legislation aims at boosting college enrollment and completion and meeting future workforce demands.

The annual cost for taxpayers would amount to an estimated $31 million, according to the legislation.

“It’s critical for the future competitiveness of our state that we invest in higher education,” said Assemblyman David Chiu, a San Francisco Democrat who co-authored the bill, along with Assemblymen Miguel Santiago, D-Los Angeles, and Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento.

Chiu estimates the state will face a shortage of 1 million college-educated workers by 2025 and said California needed to do more to make college more affordable to meet that workforce demand.

“The American dream, which used to be predicated on getting an education that would get you trained for the workforce, has diminished in California,” Chiu said. “We have to change what we’re doing.”

Brown hasn’t indicated whether he intends to sign the bill and no money has been allocated for it, but Chiu remains hopeful.

If approved, the state would create a “college promise” program, modeled after those in Long Beach, San Francisco, as well as Tennessee — the first state in the country to offer free community college for residents without advanced degrees.

California already covers tuition for a significant portion of the study body at its community colleges. In 2015-16, 43 percent of the 2.3 million community college students received so-called Board of Governors fee waivers, amounting to $800 million in taxpayer-covered tuition costs.

The vast majority received the waiver because they or families were considered low-income.

Under Chiu’s bill, an estimated 19,000 students who otherwise wouldn’t have qualified for that waiver would have the $46-per-unit tuition covered.

Santa Rosa Junior College officials support the measure, saying it could benefit hundreds of lower-income and middle-class students and their families struggling to pay tuition in addition to the county’s high housing and living costs.

“Those are the people who are living paycheck to paycheck and can’t afford college,” said Jana Cox, SRJC student financial services director.

To be eligible, students would have to be California residents enrolled full-time in a community college and fill out a Free Application for Federal Financial Aid (FAFSA) or a California Dream Act application. Their incomes would not be a factor in whether they receive a waiver under the expanded program.

Pedro Avila, SRJC’s vice president of student services, said 37 percent of the college’s students currently receive the Board of Governors fee waiver or other financial aid that covers full tuition.

Students who don’t qualify for financial aid often have to cut back on the number of classes they take to work part-time or full-time jobs, he said.

Of the 26,300 students this fall semester, 27 percent are full-time students, he said.

Three-quarters of students work, the majority part-time.

If the measure is signed, Avila said, “Some of them probably won’t have to work as much to keep up with the cost of living and pay tuition. It’ll take away some of that pressure.”

It also could boost enrollment at the junior college, which earlier this year had to trim overall spending by 2.7 percent to close a $3.4 million budget shortfall brought on primarily by declining student enrollment.

Though current SRJC students wouldn’t be eligible — the new waivers wouldn’t kick in until this coming summer at the earliest — several said it benefits the college by boosting enrollment.

High school students would be more inclined to go to college after graduation if tuition were free, said Julian Cuerda, who just started his first semester at SRJC after taking two years off to travel through Europe.

Riana Tuaua, who’s in her second year at SRJC, had to take on a part-time job to help cover her tuition, books and school supplies since her financial aid didn’t cover much.

“I’m working right now 22 hours a week, and I’m a full-time student,” said Tuaua, who works in the college’s financial aid office, where she comes across a lot of students in her situation.

Tuaua, 20, lives with her parents in Rohnert Park, and plans to transfer to San Jose State or Sacramento State to continue studying graphic and web design.

“If I had tuition free, I could save that money for transferring or anything else for school,” she said.

Alice Miller, 21, must pay for tuition out of pocket. Although she doesn’t work, she said she and her mom must make sacrifices, shopping at discount stores and cutting back on “frivolous” items to save money for her $1,000 annual tuition fee.

“Living in California isn’t necessarily cheap,” she said, adding that free tuition would mean “less stress for the average student.”

You can reach Staff Writer Eloísa Ruano González at 707-521-5458 or eloisa.gonzalez@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @eloisanews.

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