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Free tuition helps CCSF project first enrollment growth in years

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Fall enrollment for City College of San Francisco is up 17 percent from last year. (Mira Laing/S.F. Examiner)
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Free tuition already appears to be paying off for City College of San Francisco, where early signs indicate that student enrollment may grow for the first time in the fall semester since 2008, the San Francisco Examiner has learned.

Student enrollment for the first tuition-free semester at the college this fall is up 17 percent compared to this time last year, according to college data from July 5. Enrollment in credit courses, which city officials have funded for San Francisco residents, has grown 25.5 percent.

If the trend continues until class registration closes Aug. 18, the question becomes whether there is enough funding for City College to cover tuition costs for all of the San Francisco residents who sign up for credit courses expecting a free education.

When calculating the funding needed to support the free-tuition program, city and college officials left enough room for the number of San Francisco residents enrolled in credit courses to grow by 20 percent.

“If we end up drawing more students than The City and college anticipated, we’d have to have a conversation with The City,” said CCSF Trustee Rafael Mandelman, who is running for District 8 supervisor. “But that would be a great problem to have.”

Enrollment tanked at the college when the accreditation crisis struck in 2012, but has fallen every fall semester since 2008, according to state data. Enrollment declined from 67,485 students in fall 2008 to 36,453 in fall 2016.

California funds community colleges based on the calculation of full-time equivalent students at a school. City College had 19,590.34 FTES in fall 2008 and 8,483.19 in fall 2016, including 6,097.89 FTES in credit courses.
At this time last year, CCSF had 4,076.4 FTES enrolled in credit courses. Current fall enrollment is 5,114.7 FTES in credit courses, or a 25.5 percent increase over last fall.

It has yet to be determined how many of those students are San Francisco residents.

“It is exciting to see such enthusiasm for Free City,” CCSF spokesperson Jeff Hamilton said in an email, referring to the free-tuition program. “The enrollment so far looks promising for the fall semester that begins on August 19.”

CCSF Board of Trustees President Thea Selby said she did not expect to see the upward trend this quickly, but cautioned that the numbers are still below the final count for last fall.

“We got a long way to go,” Selby said. “If we are more successful than what is officially planned, we will figure it out. It’s my favorite kind of problem.”

An unanticipated number of students has the potential to revive the conversation over funding for the effort.
In recent months there was a budget battle between Mayor Ed Lee and Supervisor Jane Kim over voter-approved funding from the November election for the free-tuition effort.

On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors approved an additional $1 million toward a reserve fund for free tuition at CCSF. The program is funded through a real-estate transfer tax increase.

“A free City College reserve will allow City College to continue for at least one semester in case we have a dramatic drop in our real-estate transfer funds,” Kim said at the Board of Supervisors meeting July 11.

“We want to ensure that there is stability for students that are enrolling in City College and that we can continue to support this program,” she said.

An uptick in enrollment means more state funding for the fiscally embattled college, which took a $35 million hit to its budget this fiscal year when additional state funding for low enrollment expired.

Two events in early 2017 appear to have helped the college turn a corner with its enrollment.

A state accrediting agency reaffirmed its accreditation for seven years in January and in February, the mayor agreed to spend $5.4 million on free tuition and books for low-income students in the 2017-18 school year.

City College officials will have final enrollment figures in September.

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