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San Francisco is the first city in the nation to offer free community college tuition to all its residents. Congratulations! The City College of San Francisco (CCSF) “Free City” program offers free tuition for students who are both San Francisco residents and have lived in California for more than a year. On August 19, the fall semester officially begins. Here’s what we’ve found on the actual costs, the real free-timer’s experience, and the overall accessibility of the Free City program.

The program was first announced back in February by Mayor Ed Lee and Supervisor Jane Kim. You’ve probably seen the “Free City, Barriers Busted” advertising or billboards on a bus stop near you and maybe you were even considering taking a class—one of those great “shoulds” on the to-do list.

But if you live in a city, I’m guessing that you’re no stranger to the harsh realities of supply and demand. And that “nothing is free” anti-slogan is etched somewhere in the back of your mind.  

For our skeptical friends, we sifted through the fine print, tested the CCSF enrollment system, called a handful of phone numbers, asked questions, and will maybe sign up for a ceramics class.

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Starting the Process

As with the DMV, and pretty much every other bureaucratic system nowadays, those who help themselves through the online self-service route tend to have an easier time. My first plan of action was to speak to a counselor to get some advice. Was taking classes here right for me? So I went the old school route first...the good ol’ telephone. I called the Registrar’s Office, got transferred three times, and learned there were walk-in appointments.

Overall, my experience with staff on the phone was a full-spectrum from polite and pleasant to downright condescending. I had asked one rep for his name and he hung up on me. On one call, I was told the wait for a walk-in appointment depended on which location I went to. I was told by one person that the wait was about 15 minutes and someone else told me it was around two hours. Either way, I could not schedule a one-on-one appointment until after classes had started. I was told I must go through enrollment and the matriculation process before even the walk-in appointment, if I was going to going for credited courses.

So, step one: spend time signing up and then figure out what you signed up for. I opted to go online to try my luck with the enrollment and registration option.

Blindly clicking through the online course guide and various programs, I was able to register as a student and, like throwing a dart at a map, I chose what I thought would be a helpful program. I determined a goal (Associate’s Degree, Certificate, or the credits to transfer into a four-year college) then planned the classes accordingly. At least the online process was relatively easily. Potential students who don’t know which career or program to devote themselves to might give up here. Students with a long-term game plan can move on to the next step.

If you enroll and realize you’ve screwed up in the process, then you can drop a course fairly easily. Again, just go online. As long as you are within the allowed timeframe you won’t be charged for any of the credits, which is good news. And if you try to drop a credited class outside that time period then you will be charged.

Course books still are still a cost to consider, but there are workarounds. Digital books are frequently a lower cost option and additional costs for supplies at CCSF all seem reasonable. The Free City program also offers $500 annual stipends to full-time students and $200 annually to part-time students who are in the Free City Program, and who have successfully applied for the Board of Governors’ (BOG) fee waiver. That money can be used for books, transportation, supplies and health fees.

The process is get this stipend is the same as applying for financial aid. This is another lengthy online process, so those students that are weighing out the cost versus time benefit of applying for this money might find their time more valuable.

The Free City Program has had little effect on class availability.

As mentioned in the original press release put out by Mayor Ed Lee, the City has committed to a $5.4 million per year to the Free City program and key staff members from the Mayor’s office, City College, the San Francisco Unified School District, the Board of Supervisors, the Human Services Agency, the Department of Children, Youth and Their Families, the Controller’s Office, and the Office of Economic and Workforce Development were all part of “developing an economic model that is beneficial for students and sustainable for the City.”

Based on the City College’s Enrollment Data, as of July 7, the number of students enrolled in credited courses is around 16,000, which is lower than Fall 2016’s 23,000 students in credited courses. (Keep in mind that classes don’t get started until August 19th, so there is a good chance the numbers will still increase.) Also worth noting, the total enrollment (credited/non-credited students) had declined by around 4k total students, between Fall 2015 and Fall 2016.

City College spokesperson Jeffrey Hamilton reported a 25% increase in enrollment for credited students and a 17% increase for combined credited/non-credited students for Fall 2017. CCSF will have a better ideas of the exact numbers, as well as how many students were part of the Free City program in mid-September. Two additional counselors were added to accommodate the new program and that non-credited classes were already free, even before this program. Pretty cool.

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Enrollment Trends for CCSF

According to the PBS NewsHour, “the program could provide some form of assistance to 28,000 to 30,000 students...though it’s not clear how many will enroll.” With those numbers in mind it, and the first-hand experience of finding available classes online, I’d say the outlook on enrolling is fairly positive.

I reached out to Cody Frost, who offered a ray of hope for wanna-be students out there. As a fellow working adult, SF resident, and first-timer with City College, he enrolled with plans of transferring to a four-year college, most likely San Francisco State.

Already with real-life experience in his back pocket, he explained that his ultimate goal was to attend a grad program, either for studio art or an interdisciplinary practice, locally or maybe out of the state. He walked me through his process joining the CCSF ranks. “I have taken some placement tests, attended an orientation, and met with a counselor. The process has been very smooth and everyone has been quite helpful.”

For those tenacious go-getters out there, who don’t need their hands held when it comes to registering for classes, who have minimal questions about their overarching goals, and have free time outside of their j-o-b to make it to their classes, then the Free City program might just work for you.

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