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SoCal students flock to program with free community college tuition

Pierce College math professor Eddie Tchertchian gives L.A. College Promise students test taking tips weeks before their first day of class.
Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/KPCC
Pierce College math professor Eddie Tchertchian gives L.A. College Promise students test taking tips weeks before their first day of class.

Community college officials overseeing the Los Angeles College Promise initiative are reporting that enrollment for the new program – which waives a year of community college tuition for L.A. Unified graduates – is much higher than expected at several of L.A.’s nine community college campuses.

“We were hoping for between about 600 to 750 [students enroll] and as of now, we have about 800, and we anticipate having somewhere between 800 and a thousand when all is said and done,” said Joanna Zimring-Towne, the head of new student programs at Pierce College in the San Fernando Valley.

Officials at the L.A. Community College District said enrollment for the inaugural group of students starting classes later this month is also higher than expected at East L.A. College and L.A. Valley College, while the nine campuses altogether are expected to reach the district-wide enrollment target of 5,000 students.

The success of the program across campuses signals progress toward opening the doors of a college education to more L.A. high school students, improving their ability to earn a degree, and help quench the region’s thirst for a more highly trained workforce, officials said. 

The College Promise is trying to reach students like Itzel Barbosa.

“My idea was to first take a year off, kinda relax from school, and then get really what I really want to do and then go back into school,” she said. Instead, her mother pushed her to enroll in the College Promise program.

That kind of parent push, campus officials said, is one of the reasons so many students have been signing up for the program. A student attending an L.A. community college full time can typically expect to pay about $3,500 in tuition per year. Tuition for participants in the program is waived, regardless of need, but officials said more than half would also qualify for a needs-based grant that waives tuition going forward. 

College on-boarding, officials said, is just as important for incoming students. Earlier this week, Barbosa found herself with 34 other students in a Pierce College classroom getting tips on how to do well on math tests.

“Long-term preparation means you’re studying every week. You do not wait until the night before or a couple of days before to do the main studying,” math professor Eddie Tchertchian told the students. “Because the way math works is it often times builds upon itself, so what you learn in chapter one is crucial to what you learn in chapters two, three, four, five, and seven.”

Campus officials said research shows that this kind of support helps students stay in school and reach their goals, whether it’s earning an associates’ degree or transferring to a four-year university.

Similar programs are in place in Long Beach, Santa Ana and other California cities.

“The vision of it is creating a city of graduates,” said Deborah Harrington, dean for student success and innovation at the L.A. Community College District.

Harrington said the College Promise program is the largest effort involving the community college district, L.A. Unified, and City of L.A. to increase college enrollment. By creating a pipeline that starts in high school and bridges college transition, she’s hoping students get the message that their community cares about their education.

“It’s a moral imperative to us that you are educated because it’s not just about you individually, it’s about the health and vibrancy of this whole city," she said. 

Harrington predicted the College Promise would enroll 2,000 more students next year, while she and other officials are also working to open the program to graduates of other school districts.