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A plan to offer free community college got a big boost with the recent approval of the San Mateo County Community College District’s budget for the new fiscal year, doubling the district’s capacity to now cover educational costs for up to 4,000 students.

The budget for fiscal year 2021-22, approved unanimously by trustees during their meeting last week, allots $6.75 million in one-time funds toward the effort, which will combine with another $2 million already supplied by the county. The money will go toward the Promise Scholars Program, Dual Enrollment at College of San Mateo and Skyline College and the Zero Cost Textbooks program.

“I’m delighted to vote to approve the budget and its almost $7 million to expand the highly successful Promise Scholars program and related equity initiatives,” Trustee John Pimentel said. “We’re acting today to reallocate existing resources and to help level the playing field for all San Mateo County residents now and in the future.”

The Promise Scholars program, which saw its first group of enrollees in 2017, is the main component of the district’s free college initiative. The program waives tuition for two years, plus provides financial, academic and personalized student services for first-time, full-time students whose educational goal is to earn a certificate or associate degree. 

The previously received $2 million for the program from the county will be split between fiscal year 2021-22 and fiscal year 2022-23, helping to increase the number of participants eligible for the program from 2,000 to 2,500. With the district’s investment, up to 4,000 students could be served by the 2023-24 school year. The cost in direct aid per student is about $1,800 after accounting for federal and state financial aid.

The Dual Enrollment program helps current high school juniors and seniors complete both high school and college level courses. Nearly 2,800 students were enrolled in the program during the 2020-21 school year, accounting for 19% of all 11th and 12th grade students in the county. With an initial investment of $2.5 million, the district aims to increase its enrollment by 50% in the 2021-22 school year, 31% in 2022-23, and 36% in 2023-24.

The district’s increased funding comes in part from the state’s expanded budget, which includes increased funding in response to the pandemic and has boosted funding into community college programs by $3.5 billion over last year’s levels, according to the district’s budget report.

Pimentel emphasized that the district collects and spends more than $500 million a year including more than $200 million in “robust” local property taxes, yet still charges almost $8 million in enrollment fees from county residents who already pay taxes into the system.

This comes as enrollment continues to decline among the district’s three campuses. Enrollment rates for county residents are down by 30% from 2012 while costs have doubled in the same period, according to Pimentel.

In other business, the board made a recommendation to move forward with modified plans for continued use at the Crystal Springs Cross Country Course in Belmont and gave an update on use for the San Mateo Athletic Club — both topics the center of some debate. 

The cross country course, which sees wide use from middle school and high school programs on the Peninsula and beyond, has become an issue for some local homeowners who’ve raised concerns over parking and traffic.

In recognition of concerns, the number of yearly meets at the site will now be capped at 25, with only five meets annually allowed to exceed 1,000 participants and only five meets annually allowed to take place on Saturdays. Additionally, race organizers and the district will explore using alternative entrance points. According to Chancellor Michael Claire, the course usually hosts 30 to 35 meets annually.

“After a lot of consideration, and looking at the history of the course, we’re trying to find that middle ground,” Claire said, noting the abundance of public comment on the matter during the board’s last meeting.

As for the athletic club, the board discussed plans to further integrate student use and nonstudent members as the district takes control of the facility.

The district was previously in contract with a private partner that operated the gym, but was given direction in May to transition to in-house operation by Jan. 1. The shift came after concerns that the partnership, which includes use from private non-student members, was diminishing students’ ability to access and take advantage of the gym. 

“We heard loud and clear from you that really we need to make sure we create a student first, college first collaborative operating model that also serves the broad needs of the community for us,” Claire said.

The dilemma for the district now is how to do that while still breaking even in terms of operating costs. Though the board is still homing in on exactly how that will be accomplished, growing memberships will be part of the equation as well as altering services and staffing, Claire said. The board also announced the hiring of a new employee with experience managing and operating fitness clubs who will oversee the transition and future operations.

“It’s my hope that we don’t lose sight of the fact that becoming a zero cost entity is the ultimate goal,” President Thomas Nuris said. “We traded off an entity that made a lot of money for the district and provided a lot of benefit to go in this direction.”

The gym originally had 6,000 private members but the pandemic has seen that number cut in half, Claire said. 

A student advisory committee is planned to be formed to ensure “we’re delivering an entity that meets the needs of our students in the community,” Claire said, who also mentioned the facility could be used as a learning lab for students interested in careers in the fitness industry.

(650) 344-5200, ext. 105

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