Start here free, go anywhere

By Michael Santone, Editor-In-Chief

First time college students had until Tuesday to apply for free tuition for the fall semester at Contra Costa, Diablo Valley and Los Medanos colleges.

The First Time Full Time Free Tuition (F3) program, which is offering two consecutive semesters of free tuition to first time college hopefuls, is a part of the California College Promise, a statewide initiative to fund free tuition at community colleges.

“We recognize that more and more jobs require some college education and we are doing our absolute best to encourage folks who may be considering other options that cost more,” Contra Costa Community College District Chancellor Fred Wood said. “We’re encouraging people who may have been thinking about going to college but aren’t quite sure — folks who thought they couldn’t afford it to say hey, now is the time to jump in and get an education because we know it will help you.”

Last October, as Assembly Bill 19, the California College Promise Program was signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown. The bill allocated $1.3 million to the CCCCD for the 2018-19 school year.

The aim of AB19 and its funding is to encourage a college-going culture throughout California while increasing completion rates among community college students.

“We believe the money the state has provided will come close to or cover the number of students we anticipate participating in the program,” Dr. Wood said. “We made the commitment that we’re going to try to offer the program until that money goes away.”

Wood said when he finally got the word on a few of the program’s critical components, he gathered faculty and staff together at all three colleges in the district and put the program together as quickly as possible.

“Right now, we have been able to use the funds to try and spread out as much as we can for students and tuition. That was a decision we made,” Wood said. “Of course, we are dependent on the state for funding. If that funding continues to be provided, we plan to do this indefinitely for our students. But frankly, that’ll be a problem that we’ll be talking about in the future.”

Although there is set to be another allocation of funds for the 2019-20 school year, the $1.3 million is a trial run to gage the success of the First Time Full Time Free Tuition Program.

The F3 program, which went live on Aug. 27, had no limit on how many students could apply for the California College Promise program.

“We’re not talking just about (students) directly from high school. This is open to students of all ages and it’s open to all aspirations and objectives,” Wood said. “Everything from someone interested in one semester, maybe a short certificate program, to those interested in an associate degree or interested in transfer.”

Students interested in the program had until Tuesday to apply for the fall term and as of Aug. 28 there were a total of 1,050 applications to be processed throughout the district.

District Director of Financial Aid Timothy Bonnel said once all three colleges in the district began advertising the First Time Full-Time Free Tuition Program on their website, students who had already completed many units began applying for the program.

“So, it is for first time full-time students and we’re working on trying to identify legitimate pledges,” Bonnel said. “We’re in the process now of trying to wait until the 10th and start filtering out those who were already students and helping them get regular financial aid that’s available.”

Bonnel said the district may refine the program as it moves into the future to see if it can better serve students so that when their signing up they are categorized as first time students.

After making the pledge to “take charge of their future with the college’s help,” students, who must be California residents or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients, were required to complete a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) or California Dream Act application.

Students must then complete an educational plan of no less than 12 semester units, which is the threshold for recognition as a full-time equivalent student.

Sustaining a 2.0 GPA, participatation in college programs and support services and continued progress on the selected education plan are also a part of the required pledge.

“The intent is to have students sign up and when they meet the requirements, including completing their 12 units, they get their tuition back, which makes it a free education,” Bonnel said. “We would like to at some point grow the program with additional benefits for students as well.”

Bonnel said the idea is for students to complete the financial aid form so the possibility for more funds can help out with textbooks, transportation and housing.

“More importantly, this is not need based, it is a requirement that students fill out the financial aid form. The reason we are doing that is because there may be financial aid available for them that they don’t know about,” Bonnel said.

Fifty-four-year-old single mother Veronica Belmontis said she had dreamed of going to college since she was a little girl but because of some obstacles and blessings she never got the chance.

“You are never too old to go to college or learn something new and I’m proof of that,” Belmontis said. “I’ve always wanted to continue my education, but because of my beautiful daughters I had to put that on hold. But I’m here and it’s truly a blessing.”

Belmontis who is a CCC art major, said she heard about the First Time Full-Time Free Tuition program through her oldest daughter who attends Middle College High School.

“She came home one evening and said, ‘Mom, you have your chance to go to my college,’” Belmontis said. “I really think this program is long overdue. There are people who have been in the same situation as me, who need that little push and I think it’s wonderful that it’s happening in our community.”