The article below originally appeared in the San Mateo Daily Journal and is being reprinted with permission.

Courses at San Mateo County’s three community colleges may soon become free for thousands of local students, reducing barriers to higher education for which district officials have long fought.

“Tuition is only a part of a very, very complex problem and we recognize that,” Trustee John Pimentel said during a meeting Wednesday. “All sorts of issues cause folks to not come to community college but this is one thing we can do, that we can control now, and make a big deal out of it.”

With Senate Bill 893 sitting on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk waiting for approval, trustees are now left to decide how they’ll implement the five-year pilot program — championed by state Sen. Josh Becker, D-San Mateo; Assembly Speaker pro Tem Kevin Mullin, D-South San Francisco; and Assemblyman Marc Berman, D-Palo Alto — that will permit them to waive their $46 per unit enrollment fees for more than 13,600 students who reside in San Mateo County starting this spring semester.

Two recommendations were presented to the board Wednesday. The first would waive a number of fees for more than 5,000 students who already receive California College Promise Grants, a program that pays enrollment fees for students with great financial need. The move would cost the district about $806,000 for the spring semester.

The board already approved a version of this offering by waiving student health and parking fees and parking permit citations for the 2022-23 school year, saving students between $700,000 and $770,000 combined, according to a press release.

“This decision is a reflection of the district’s commitment to providing equitable access to college resources,” Chancellor Michael Claire said in the press release. “The cost of health services and parking should not be a barrier to receiving an education. We are committed to making SMCCCD a welcoming, inclusive space for all students.”

The second recommendation would waive enrollment fees for San Mateo County residents who do not qualify for Promise Grants and for students who the district does not have financial information on, which would cost about $8.65 million for a full year of the program.

In total, the program is expected to cost the district about $4.7 million next semester if both interim policy recommendations are adopted. Dr. Richard Storti, executive vice chancellor for Administrative Services, said the district has set aside $6 million in the 2022-23 budget for the program’s implementation.

Dr. Aaron McVean, vice chancellor for Educational Services and Planning, noted the district will have to eventually develop a framework for determining financial need to be in compliance of SB 893 and will also have to devote more resources toward increasing the number of students who complete their financial documentation.

Trustees shared some concerns the program could be abused by people who live outside of the county or are interested in using district facilities for free using privileges only available to students. Overall, they lauded the program, which Pimentel said could potentially boost enrollment during a time of major decline.

McVean said more long-term policies are still being finalized. In the meantime, the recommendations would help the district move closer to its goal of providing free community college education and act as a role model for other districts, he said.

“This would be a way to help convince not just the state but probably other basic aid districts that we can make community college free again as it was so many years ago now. I do think this could be a model of how to do that in a reasonable manner,” McVean said.

The board will make its decision on the recommendation during its next meeting Sept. 8, and will also vote on whether to adopt the proposed updated budget. The policy would then take effect by Jan. 1 given that Newsom signs the legislation, but McVean said staff will spend the next two months preparing the district’s system to waive fees by Nov. 2, when enrollment for the spring semester begins.

“This is very exciting and I think we’re all very excited about it,” Trustee Tom Nuris said. “Looking at this and moving forward in it, it looks like it’s going to pick up momentum. It’s going to be a very excellent program.”

In other business, the board appointed four community members to its Chancellor Search Screening Committee — housing advocate Alex Melendrez; Rosanne Foust, president and CEO of the San Mateo County Economic Development Association; Darnise Williams, superintendent of the Sequoia Union High School District; and Rose Jacobs Gibson, a former county supervisor and East Palo Alto mayor.

The group is slated to hold its first meeting Sept. 1, during which they will review the chancellor position announcement that will be published by Sept. 8.