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News + PoliticsOpinionSave Free City College

Save Free City College

A community lifeline approved by the voters is threatened by the mayor's budget proposal.


The Free City College program at City College of San Francisco is at risk, and we must act to save it.

If the Mayor’s Office and the Board of Supes proceeds with proposed reductions, the first tuition-free community college program in the country will be dismantled, making free enrollment accessible only to some, not all. This would go against the will of the voters, break a ten-year commitment, disrupt the educational plans of our most vulnerable students, and destabilize City College at a time when it is already fragile.

The Free City College program is a collaboration between City College and the city. It provides tuition assistance for students who have been California residents for more than a year and live in San Francisco, covering the $46 enrollment fee per unit. Students who already receive other enrollment fee waivers are granted $46 for each credit unit they are enrolled in.

Free City College is now threatened

City College offers associate degrees, vocational training, and certificates, helping students achieve diverse career and life goals. These include transferring to a four-year university, gaining new skills, learning English to improve job prospects, or becoming child-care providers, carpenters, firefighters, registered nurses, x-ray technicians, cooks, and realtors.

The journey to establish Free City College was a hard-won victory led by the Free City College Coalition and then-Supervisor Jane Kim. In November 2016, voters approved Proposition W, which increased the municipal real estate transfer tax on properties worth over $5 million. The goal was to create the first tuition-free community college in the country, and a two-year pilot program was launched. Despite the tax generating $30 to $38 million a year, the pilot program received only $5.3 million per year, underfunding tuition and program expenses.

In 2019, as the pilot program’s two-year term was ending with no agreement in place for the next academic year, the Free City College Coalition, Supervisor Gordon Mar, and the Mayor’s Office negotiated a new ten-year Memorandum of Understanding to secure and enhance funding. Starting in 2019-20, the program was to be funded with $15 million, $15.7 million in 2020-21, and $16.4 million in 2021-22, with annual adjustments based on inflation until 2029. The agreement also provided $5.4 million in retroactive reimbursement for previous shortfalls.

However, a new proposal from the Mayor’s Office threatens to break this agreement, limiting Free City College to only some students.

The future of Free City College is in jeopardy. Proposed changes could restrict free enrollment to a limited range of courses starting in the 2025-26 academic year, covering only classes that fit designated educational plans. Additionally, proposed budget cuts could slash funding from $18.9 million in 2023-24 to just $9.3 million in 2024-25, and $7.2 million by 2025-26. There are also plans to cut reserve funds previously used for student debt relief. Money from Free City College would be used to address the city’s budget shortfalls.

While the exact proposals will not be released until later this year, it is evident that these changes will not promote equity. They will limit free enrollment to some students, stripping away access and opportunities for many. Under this new framework, classes or programs deemed less valuable or yielding fewer outcomes might lose free tuition support.

Such drastic changes would completely undermine the vision San Franciscans had when they supported Proposition W. Free City College was intended to be the first completely free community college program in the country, offering education to all without exception.

More critically, these cuts will harm our most vulnerable, low-income, and historically marginalized students, who may not be able to afford higher education if fees are reinstated. These students often juggle caring for children, working multiple jobs, and striving to improve their lives through education. For them, Free City College tuition assistance is crucial; it can make the difference between affording essential needs like food, books, and public transit.

With a revenue freeze for City College approaching in fiscal year 2025-26 due to a change in the state community college funding formula, these cuts could reduce enrollment and destabilize the college’s future revenue at a pivotal moment as the institution works to stabilize its recently balanced and healthy budget.

Free City College, the first tuition-free community college program in the country, is under threat. Access to education should be open to everyone, and it is our collective duty to ensure that access for future generations. Let’s save Free City College and uphold City College’s mission to provide accessible, quality education for all.

Alan Wong is the President of the City College of San Francisco Board of Trustees and Co-Chair of the Free City College Oversight Committee. He also serves on the board of the City College Foundation. As a City Hall education policy advisor in 2019, Wong worked on drafting and passing the legislation guaranteeing a decade of Free City College for all San Franciscans. 

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram


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