A disagreement over whether all City College of San Francisco students should be subjected to a financial aid vetting process in order to qualify for free tuition has delayed the reimbursement of city dollars meant to fund the Free City College program.

The college has made three attempts since December to bill The City for the program, which covers full tuition costs for San Francisco residents. Most recently, on Feb. 15, it sent an invoice for $4.1 million.

However two prior invoices have been sent back to the college by the City officials tasked with administering the funds, with requests for additional student enrollment data.

At the heart of the issue is a memorandum of understanding that designates Free City as a “last dollar program” and requires the college to find other avenues to cover students’ enrollment fees before dipping into city funds.

“Based on the MOU….The City’s dollars are what we call ‘last use’ dollars, meaning we asked of CCSF to leverage all available funds first, and then we would use our dollars because they are so limited,” said Maria Su, executive director of the San Francisco Department of Children, Youth and Their Families. “We wanted to make sure we could support as many students as possible.”

As first reported by the City College newspaper, The Guardsman, City College administrators first became worried that they were in violation with the MOU in the fall semester, when Chancellor Mark Rocha, concerned that the college’s current systems could not keep up with the growing number of students, exempted students enrolling under Free City from having to fill out lengthy Free Application for Student Aid (FAFSA) forms.

“I saw that our financial aid system was not prepared to package every student to comply with the MOU that we had signed,” said Rocha at a Board of Trustees hearing on Dec. 14. “So I made the decision to lift the gate. I said to Admission and Records, ‘Let them through,’ because enrollment was the top priority.”

That decision, however, may have violated the agreement with the city to find other sources of funding.

Su confirmed to the San Francisco Examiner that “FAFSA speaks to why there is a delay in processing the invoice.”

“We don’t have any back up documentation that shows that students …that they were able to draw from other funds first before they used our dollars,” she said, adding that The City has 30 days after receiving the invoice to process it.

“We are trying to move as fast as we can — we just received it last week,” said Su.

In order to bring the College into compliance with the MOU for the Spring semester, City College staff worked throughout the fall semester to improve their financial aid intake systems.

The result was a new requirement in the registration process that directed every student — even those who were not eligible or interested in applying for federal or state financial aid — to apply for FAFSA.

The change did not sit well with some students and City College trustees, who called the additional financial aid forms “burdensome.”

At the Dec. 14 hearing, Trustee Alex Randolph, who is now the board’s vice president, said that he received emails from students about the change and expressed concerns that requiring students who are ineligible for federal and state aid to fill out FAFSA forms could negatively impact enrollment.

“It does not make sense to me to have a system in place that forces people to apply for something when everybody knows they are not eligible for it, when the voters of San Francisco specifically voted for Free City regardless of financial aid status” Randolph said. “It seems we added another burden.”

Some $5.5 million was set aside annually to fund the Free City program over the next two years after San Francisco voters approved a real estate transfer tax on properties selling for more than $5 million in November 2016. The tuition subsidy was meant in part to boost enrollment at the once embattled college, which recently emerged from an accreditation crisis, by guaranteeing free tuition to San Francisco residents — regardless of economic status.

The program, launched for the first time in the fall semester, helped fuel an 11 percent increase in enrollment at the college for that semester.

According to City College Trustee John Rizzo, college administrators expect to be reimbursed for the $4.1 million the college is owed by the city by the end of the fiscal year in June.

The MOU creates an Oversight Committee, and The City is expected to call a meeting in March to address concerns, according to CCSF spokesperson Jeff Hamilton.

Hamilton said the MOU does not specifically mention FAFSA, but dictates that “City College shall make a good faith effort to ensure that eligible students are able to access the funds provided under this agreement through its established financial aid process.”

“For fall we followed the normal process of offering aid to all students,” he said. “We have added additional mechanisms for Spring to educate and outreach to students about additional financial aid options.”

Laura Waxmann

Laura Waxmann covers education and community news for the San Francisco Examiner. Reach her at (415) 359-2730 and lwaxmann@sfexaminer.com. Follow Laura on Twitter: @laura_waxee

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Laura Waxmann

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