Free Tuition Increases Interest in Columbia College

Article written by Alex MacLean

The Union Democrat

Columbia College believes it’s on track to increase full-time enrollment of June high school this fall due to a new program that pays tuition for the first year.

About 120 students who graduated from high school this spring in Tuolumne County or Angels Camp have enrolled for the fall semester, according to Amy Nilson, the college’s director of development.

Nilson said between 75 and 80 percent will get their first year free thanks to a new fee-waiver from the state, while the rest are expected to qualify for free tuition through the Columbia College Promise program.

The numbers at this point give Nilson and others involved with the program optimism that they will at least meet their goal of getting 25 percent of all graduating seniors from schools in Tuolumne County and Angels Camp enrolled in the fall.

“We’re hearing from parents and counselors that this has really been an encouragement to them and helping to make college seem doable,” Nilson said. “We’re really looking to encourage them to start right out of high school at building their skills or preparing for transfer.”

Eligible students must have graduated in the spring from a high school in Tuolumne County or the Bret Harte Union High School District based in Angels Camp, because those are the schools that lie within the boundaries of Columbia College.

When the Columbia College Foundation conceived of the program, it used the percentage of graduating seniors from local schools in 2015 who had enrolled full time at the college that fall as a benchmark for improvement.

There were 711 graduating seniors in 2015 who graduated from a school within the college’s footprint, and 114 of those enrolled for a full-time schedule at the college that fall, which was about 16 percent.

A full-time schedule is considered 12 units per semester, though the Promise program offers to cover up to a total of 30 units between two semesters.

Tuolumne County Superintendent of Schools Margie Bulkin, who serves on the foundation’s Board of Directors and as chairwoman of the Columbia College Promise committee, said there were about 485 seniors who graduated in the county this year.

Nilson said the school is still working to get the number of graduating seniors this year from the Bret Harte Union High School District for tracking purposes.

The total number of incoming freshmen enrolled at the school for the fall was not immediately available, but Nilson said that number is expected to increase between now and the enrollment deadline a week before the semester begins on Aug. 27.

“It’s just not precise at this point,” she said.

A full year of study at the college typically costs between $1,200 and $1,500 for tuition, as well as an additional roughly $1,700 for books and other related fees and costs. The Promise program cover tuition only.

About one in five students enrolled at public high schools in Tuolumne County take classes and necessary requirements to make them eligible to be accepted at a four-year university after graduation, but Bulkin estimated the cost of tuition is a barrier for about 75 percent of the county’s population.

“For a lot of people in our community, the option of going to state university is a challenge, least of which is capability and most of which is financial,” Bulkin said. “We wanted to promote this concept that you can get to college and we will remove that barrier to open the door for an opportunity at a two-year degree or transfer to a four-year university.”

Bulkin said statistics show students are more likely to graduate in four years if they start at a junior college and transfer to a university. She added that studies also show that they’re more likely to finish if they enroll full time, which is why that’s a requirement of students who receive free tuition through the Columbia College Promise program.

There will also be a counselor to provide specialized guidance and support for students in the program.

“We are investing in their success not just financially, but we’ll also have a support system at the college,” Bulkin said. “The college is really interested in increasing their two-year completion rate.”

The program is funded entirely through grants and donations from the community.

Nilson said the foundation was about $65,000 away from raising the $270,000 it estimated is needed to cover the number of eligible students over the next three years.

A more than $2 million endowment gift was also bestowed upon the college from the Wise Family Charitable Trust in September to provide support for the Promise initiative as well as a mini-grant program.

Last month, the Sonora Area Foundation provided a $20,000 grant to support the Columbia College Promise program as well as a mini-grant program.

Sonora Area Foundation representatives presented the $20,000 check to outgoing College President Angela Fairchilds at a reception on May 24 in honor of her retirement at the end of this month.

Fairchilds will be replaced in mid-July by Santanu Bandyopadhyay, who most recently served as executive vice president of educational programs and student services at Cypress College near Long Beach.

Half of the $20,000 grant comes from a number of funds at the Sonora Area Foundation, including the Black Oak Casino Resort Community Fund, Comazzi Family Fund, Comcast Community Fund, McMillen Jacobs Associates Community Fund, Boyd Family Fund, Geer Family Fund, Reb and Susan Silay Fund, and the Sonora Sunrise Rotary.

All of the funds were matched by a $10,000 donation that came from an anonymous donor.