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

Thousands of San Mateo County residents will remain eligible for free community college through the summer and next year but district officials have taken a more conservative approach to lower barriers to higher education by taking into account financial need for other fees.

“It would be great to do everything but as an old mentor of mine in the community college work, Mike Claire said, … we can do anything but we can’t do everything,” board Vice President John Pimentel said during a meeting on March 22. “If we want to layer more stuff on that later we can get to that later but I think it’s a slightly more conservative approach than trying to do everything for everybody.”

District officials have spent the past few years working to reduce financial barriers to higher education in part by doing away with some fees and lobbying for Senate Bill 893. The bill took effect this year and allows the district to waive and use unrestricted funds to cover a state-mandatory $46 per unit enrollment fee for county residents.

Those waivers took effect this spring semester. Meanwhile, district staff was crafting a framework for determining the financial need for assistance that would be used to justify the waivers, a requirement set out in the bill.

Staff proposed the board adopt an official policy waiving the enrollment fees for all students residing in the county at a cost of about $6.4 million. The policy would also waive fees for transportation, textbook and technology supports — referred to as the Three Ts — and other fees for students who have an educational goal to earn a degree, certificate or transfer; are enrolled in a minimum of six units per semester; and prove a financial need.

The financial need threshold would be set for students with an expected family contribution of 600% based on levels set under the California College Promise Grant program, under staff’s proposal. That would cost the district more than $3.7 million for an estimated 3,952 students.

“Ultimately, we want the access, we want the enrollment and hopefully, through this, we see that extension,” said Dr. Aaron McVean, vice chancellor of Educational Services and Planning.

Student Trustee Lesly Ta advocated for the proposal, noting that students face a number of difficulties and every layer of support can help make their goals a reality. Without the support she received, she said, she wouldn’t have been able to advance through courses that have now put her on a path to transferring to another program where she’ll earn her bachelor’s degree.

From another perspective, Ta said her husband lost his job at the start of the pandemic and decided to return to school after realizing his industry was not recovering as quickly as others. Unfortunately, she said, he did not qualify for some programs and didn’t receive valuable academic advising.

“I am in full support to make community college free again. That initiative and that heart that you have to not only bring it to our district but to bring it to California, I am on board with that. And I think the best way for us to present that idea in California as a district is to show that enrollment fees should be free. People should have access to their education,” Ta said.

Trustees and each president from the three colleges — Kim Lopez, president of Cañada College, Dr. Melissa Moreno, president of Skyline College and the future interim district chancellor, and Dr. Jennifer Taylor-Mendoza, president of the College of San Mateo — said they’d like to support as many students as possible.

But they shared support for adopting a more conservative approach until staff can determine which fees would be best waived to help students and correlate with an improved student completion rate.

Trustees unanimously adopted a policy that waives the $46 fee for students living in the county with an educational goal to earn a degree, certificate or transfer — about 8,462 students at a cost of more than $4.2 million. They also agreed to waive fees for the Three Ts for students with an expected family contribution of 300%, spending about $2.9 million for an estimated 3,811 students.

“I think we can just do what we can do right now in the bigger picture,” said Trustee Wayne Lee. “We’re just going to have to pull the trigger and refine it.”