First Year Free is a ‘PCC Promise’

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Sometimes you have to hear it, see it and read it to believe it: The first year of community college for local, qualifying high school graduates really is free at Pasadena City College — and it doesn’t matter how much, or how little — your parents earn.
In its fledgling roll-out program for the “PCC Promise” this fall, the campaign has garnered about 149 students from 16 high schools around the Pasadena Area Community College District who are attending free of charge.
And that free year might soon get even better after Gov. Jerry Brown recently signed a bill into law making the “first year free” a statewide mandate.
If that money is successfully allocated during state budget approval, PCC could even extend its Promise campaign to cover the second year for free at its college if the state covers the first.
“It’s definitely one of the options we’re looking at,” said PCC Foundation Executive Director Bobbi Abram, noting that a lot hinges on if the state is able to secure funding for the measure.
Assembly Bill 19 was signed by Brown earlier last month and covers the fees for California community college first-year students beginning Jan. 1. However, until those funds are secured, allocated and eligibility requirements defined, PCC will continue to offer its Promise program.
“We’re thrilled that Gov. Brown has signed AB19 to establish the California College Promise. We look forward to integrating our local program with what is developed at the state level,” said PCC President Rajen Vurdien.
“The Promise will help the entire district advance economically and socially. When you remove barriers to access to education, you create a more educated populace. This leads to enhanced outcomes for the students, their families and our community for years to come,” he said.
To be eligible for the PCC Promise, students must have earned a high school diploma or equivalent from any public or private high school within the Pasadena Area Community College District. They must also first apply to PCC in the fall following their high school graduation and for financial aid (which flags the student as qualifying for the Promise scholarship), maintain a 2.0 GPA while in school, and enroll in at least nine units per semester at PCC to remain within the program. Students who enter military service immediately following high school will be eligible if they enroll at PCC the first semester after completing service.
PCC Promise is a last dollar scholarship program, which means it meets any funding need remaining after federal, state aid programs and private scholarships have been applied. It covers students’ credit fees and comparable tuition, which are paid on every unit for which the student registers.
Part of the PCC Foundation’s strategy has been to ensure that students apply for financial aid as a prerequisite to the Promise scholarship.
“Our financial aid department helps them navigate the forms and fill out the FAFSA, Pell Grant, certain state funding programs,” Abram said. “A lot of students actually qualify for financial aid and don’t even know it. The more students we can get through the Promise program, the more we can walk through it and make sure they get all this assistance that’s available to them.”
With tuition costs of $46 per unit, the Promise has ensured its recipients a savings of some $650 per semester at PCC.
Luz Vazquez, 18, a graduate of Arroyo High School in El Monte, said she was thrilled to learn she is a Promise recipient, and will pay a yearly bill of $31, which she thinks is just the registration fee.
“I honestly can’t afford [tuition], and like this, I get to take a full course and work only a few times a week.… It’s great, they’ve given me the chance to make my first year so much easier, and also give me a little time to figure out what program I want to be in,” said Vazquez, who works part time at a dental office.
Vazquez, who is the first in her family to attend college, is debating on whether to become an orthodontist or a pharmacy technician, and really hopes to transfer to Cal State L.A. when she has more of an idea. She has two younger brothers she hopes also will attend PCC, and maybe even her mom, who is taking classes elsewhere to learn English.
The Promise program will also help attract students who otherwise might not attend college at all, said Christian Estrada, 18, a freshman focusing on administration of justice degree.
“I think it’s a good idea and a great opportunity for first-year students,” he said.
A recent graduate of John Muir High School, Estrada was taking a break between classes at one of PCC’s many outdoor common areas, using the shade of a leafy tree to chat with fellow students and listen to music. He said he probably could have applied for the scholarship, but found out about it too late.
“I hadn’t heard of it until recently … I see it as a really good tool to get kids to go to college who might not have gone otherwise. It could help motivate people to try it out for a while and see if they like it, see if college is for them — why not try it if it’s free?”
Currently, the PCC Promise scholarship is part of a five-year, four-speared initiative campaign by the foundation to raise about $12 million. Called “Create, Impact, Transform” the campaign money raised will go to strengthen PCC’s scholarships, career and technical education, arts and athletics.
“Our hopes are that the campaign will help to transform lives at PCC,” said Jim Sarni, PCC Foundation Board president. He noted that the career and technical preparation studies are particularly important to keep California’s economy growing. Citing some recent data, Sarni said only about one in five individuals with a community college degree have adequate skills for less than 10% of the jobs in their chosen fields.
“The need for skills-based training is incredibly important to fill the gap between those skilled workers and the jobs available. The problem is the mismatch of the jobs available today and the available pool of people who have those skills,” Sarni said. “The misnomer is that there’s a lack of jobs — which there’s not, but there’s a lack of people in alignment with those jobs.”
He also emphasized the power of PCC; not just as a school for young people but for older people in need of a career change or who want to continue their education.
“We have a wonderful, supportive community and people who understand the value of the organization that we have right in our backyard. We’ve got to invest in our future, and PCC offers a very productive way to do that,” Sarni said, noting that the foundation’s campaign has raised about $6 million so far. He encourages the community to keep supporting PCC to help it achieve great goals.
To donate, go to pasadena.edu/foundation/.

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