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California could offer free community college to first-time students, regardless of income.

An assembly bill co-sponsored by three Bay Area Democrats and one from Los Angeles would waive the second year of tuition at community colleges around the state, including Santa Rosa Junior College. It would expand a “college promise” program that waives tuition for the first year, which lawmakers approved last year to make college more affordable and boost enrollment and completion.

Los Angeles Assemblyman Miguel Santiago at a news conference last week called AB 2 a “passion project.” He co-sponsored the bill, along with David Chiu of San Francisco, Kevin McCarty of Sacramento and Rob Bonta of Oakland.

Santiago said he would have never been able to attend UCLA and follow his dreams of becoming a politician without community college.

“It’s very simple — every student who comes through a community college should have the opportunity to earn their associate degree,” Santiago said. “This isn’t a handout because students have every inch of skin in the game to maintain stellar grades and commit full-time.”

If passed, the bill would provide two years of free tuition to first-time students who are attending college full-time.

“We need AB 2, because that’s two years of dreams and two years of a free opportunity to work hard and to find what your goals are,” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said at Tuesday’s news conference, which drew education leaders from across the state.

Chiu and McCarty shared their excitement Tuesday, amid cheers from students holding signs that read “make higher ed free for me.”

California already covers tuition for a significant portion of students at its 114 community colleges. In 2015-16, 43 percent of the 2.3 million community college students received Board of Governors fee waivers, amounting to $800 million in taxpayer-covered tuition costs.

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

In Santa Rosa, college administrators said they are satisfied with the continued push for better financial opportunities for students, but many campuses in the area are struggling with maintaining students full-time.

“We are stretched financially, and we are using every bit of money the state gives us in any way we can,” said Dorothy Battenfeld, a board trustee for Santa Rosa Junior College.

With rising costs of living and a lack of affordable-housing options, students are juggling multiple jobs and living with three, sometimes four roommates in small apartments, said Pedro Avila, the college’s student services vice president.

“We see more students having to work while going to school, which means they have competing priorities,” Avila said. “And while we haven’t seen enrollment numbers decline, what we are seeing is a decline in the number of classes students are taking.”

AB 2 could provide more support to students who may be taking longer to graduate or transfer because of a lack of wraparound financial support, Avila said.

For Constance Tanner, various forms of financial aid are the only reason she’s still able to be a student at SRJC, where she studies human services. Without the aid, she said, she wouldn’t be able to afford to go to school.

“Receiving financial aid has allowed me to go to school full-time,” said Tanner, 36. “Community college has allowed me to study without going into debt or taking years to complete school.”

Avila hopes the bill also will target a growing population of students who come from middle-income backgrounds and are struggling to pay for school.

“You have those students that are lower to middle income that sometimes don’t qualify for a lot of aid,” Avila said. “But they, too, are working hard to manage themselves and support their families.”

You can reach Staff Writer Alexandria Bordas at 707-521-5337 or alexandria.bordas@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @CrossingBordas.

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