City College board calls for tuition subsidy program to cover more students

The City College of San Francisco board on Thursday voted to support a charter amendment guaranteeing funding for the Free City program, but called for changes that would allow it to cover more students.

The two-year Free City College pilot program is set to expire in June, and City leaders will soon decide on placing the charter amendment proposed by Supervisor Jane Kim securing funding for the Free City program on the 2019 ballot.

In a 6-1 vote, the trustees passed a resolution supporting the effort — so long as the program allows for revisions to the current agreement with the city governing how the funding is allocated.

City College leaders said at a special hearing Thursday that the funding currently earmarked for the program, an annual $5,366,952, has not been sufficient to cover the full cost of the program, which according to inaugural year enrollment data would amount to upwards of $14.5 million.

Because the current funding does not account for enrollment boosts and the agreement with The City has hampered the college’s ability to serve all the students intended to be covered by Free City, City College administrators are pressing for revisions to the contract that would designate Free City as an entitlement program.

Free City is designated as a “last dollar program” under the current agreement, meaning that students must first draw on other available public funding sources before being eligible for funding under Free City.

College administrators said Thursday that undocumented students who are otherwise eligible for the program but are hesitant to complete federal and state financial aid applications are not captured. Low-income students who receive state financial aid and often work part-time are also not eligible to receive Free City funding, which could be used to pay for books or other education related costs.

“Free City is a conditional financial aid program. Students only get the money if they don’t qualify for other financial aid,” said Chancellor Mark Rocha. “We are trying to say the best thing for students would be if Free City was an unqualified program.”

Fully funding the program using college resources is not permitted under state education code, and failure on part of the City to reimburse the college for Free City’s costs could result in a penalty of a 10 percent reduction of state enrollment funding for the college, said City College General Counsel Stever Brukman.

Some $11.2 million was set aside to cover two years of the program in early 2017 in a deal struck with then-Mayor Ed Lee following the passage of Proposition W, which raised the transfer tax on properties sold for more than $5 million. According to the City Controller’s Office, Prop. W raised $30.3 million last fiscal year.

While Prop. W was approved by voters with the understanding that The City would cover the $46 per unit enrollment fees of students who live in San Francisco, City College spokesperson Connie Chan said that “conversations about the funding formula and how much the college should be reimbursed” are ongoing.

Trustee John Rizzo voted against the resolution supporting the charter amendment, saying it should include stronger language that would entirely absolve City College from paying for the program.

“The charter amendment must [include] enough funding to cover the entire program,” said Rizzo. “The bottom line is we can’t pay for it, per the education code.”

The discussion that preceded the vote highlighted several of the MOU’s inherent design flaws, which college administrators said have complicated administering the program in its intended spirit and allowed for equity and social justice issues to arise.

Rocha said that students who register under Free City believing that their tuition is free but later decide to drop classes are charged for the units.

He also called the funding shortfall “a serious design flaw” that the college could not afford to take on.

“This is an enrollment assistance fund for students and it has been short funded. We said this since day one,” said Rocha. “A shortfall in effect cannot be funded by the college.”

Rocha has indicated that conversations with a subcomittee of The City’s Department of Children, Youth and Families, which is adminstering the Free City funding, about changes the MOU are ongoing, and that the college hopes to arrive at a revised contract “as early as possible in 2019.”

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