Free community college for ... some. It's a start

Free community college for ... some. It's a start
Students walk between classes at Orange Coast Community College on the morning of September 10, 2012. (Los Angeles Times)

I'm teaching a journalism class this spring semester at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, where much has changed since I attended 20 years ago as a film major. There's a new library, for one, and a snazzy baseball field. The gigantic parking lot where I'd sleep in my '83 Corvette between lectures now has large solar panels that also act as much-needed shade.

But the cafeteria with better-than-average food thanks to our awesome culinary program is still there. So is a motivated student body that has the third-highest transfer rate to a UC or Cal State school of any community college in California (we'll pass you yet, Santa Monica City and De Anza). My students are like 19-year-old me: young, ambitious and ready to take on the world. Except cooler, of course.


The biggest difference between them and me, though? Tuition.

It cost $13 a unit my first year, and the price went down to $12 by the time I graduated in 1999. As a full-time student taking 15 units per semester, that added up to just $360 a year.

Community college students in California now pay $46 a unit — $1,380 a year for full-timers. And that doesn't include school fees, parking passes and a bunch of overpriced geology textbooks they'll likely never use again and will probably sell back to a used bookstore for pesos on the dollar.

That's why Gov. Jerry Brown's approval of $46 million in California's 2018 budget to pay the tuition of first-time, full-time community college students might be his greatest political accomplishment. It's an investment not only in our economy, but also education and the state's future.

I was actually shocked at how cheaply we can pay for full-time, first-time community college students. Just $46 million a year? That's about half of what a single mile will cost to connect Madera to Bakersfield in the California High-Speed Rail project — and I guarantee you that free tuition will take California further than any bullet train ever will.

Still, Brown, his successor and the California Legislature could do more. They could permanently set aside money to make community college free for anyone who wants to work toward a degree or career. Because, more so than our four-year schools, community colleges are foundries that shape the state's raw talent.

Why not free tuition at UCs and Cal States, too?

Share quote & link

I'm obviously biased on this, but hear me out. No four-year university wanted me when I graduated from Anaheim High School in 1997, because my grades were low and my attitude toward school was lackadaisical. (I was that type of nerd who never did homework, got A's on tests, and always talked in class.) I could've ended up stuck as a go-kart attendant.

Everything changed the moment I enrolled at OCC. Administrators flagged me for counseling to ensure I took the right classes and developed a two-, four- and six-year plan. Professors were tough but understanding, and were there because they wanted to focus on teaching instead of publishing-or-perishing.

The experience transformed me. I finally reached my potential, and ended up with a bachelor's degree from Chapman University and a master's from UCLA. The biggest honor I'll ever receive in my life came when OCC inducted me into its Alumni Hall of Fame in 2015. And, while I stupidly decided to become a reporter instead of try and make it in Hollywood, I credit all my success to having attended Orange Coast.

Not everyone leaves high school with a clear sense of what they want to do, or with the right qualifications to attend a university. Some try to find a job, any job, but others feel strongly that they need to continue with their educations. Community college gives that latter group a chance to make it where other institutions of higher education won't.

I don't actually think community college should be free free. Students who qualify should be required to give back in some way, whether through mentoring those who come after them or a promise to contribute to a school's scholarship fund once they find a job. Those who take advantage of free tuition must hit certain benchmarks toward a goal — we shouldn't pay for some film geek to take a bunch of classes with no plan other than to hone his monologue about why Rossellini is a more quintessentially Italian director than Fellini. And the state should limit tuition assistance to those who received the majority of their K-12 education in California — this is an investment in us, not the world.

This giveaway spurs the question: Why not free tuition at UCs and Cal States, too? Students are gathering signatures to put a proposition on the ballot this fall that would accomplish just that. It's a good conversation to have, and would return California to how our higher education system used to be: completely gratis. But let's start with something already funded. Let's expand it further next year. And if you want to take my class? Last day to add me was on Sunday — better luck next semester!

Twitter: @gustavoArellano


Follow the Opinion section on Twitter @latimesopinion or Facebook