clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

San Francisco just offered free college tuition to all its residents

A woman marches to raise City College of San Francisco enrollment.
Carnaval Studios / Flickr

One day before Betsy DeVos’s controversial appointment as the nation’s secretary of education, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee made a historic announcement: Starting next fall, community college will be free to all California residents who’ve lived in the city for at least one year.

"At a time when the political rhetoric is punishing those who are less fortunate, San Francisco has again united around our values and taken the national lead on this important issue of equality," Lee said on Monday.

The initiative, spearheaded by city supervisor Jane Kim, makes San Francisco the first major city in America to offer free college to the entirety of its population.

The initiative will be funded by a tax on $5 million-plus homes

A San Francisco mansion.
San Francisco Association of Realtors

Last November, San Francisco voters approved Proposition W, which levied a transfer tax on all properties selling for $5 million or more. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the measure is expected to raise $44 million annually.

The new initiative will dole out $2.1 million of this revenue annually to students wishing to enroll at San Francisco City College. At the college’s current rate of $46 per credit, this will buy 45,000 academic credits — enough to fully fund 3,750 full-time students per year. Additionally, students who already receive free tuition will be getting an extra $500 per year for textbooks and supplies.

In December, New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a $163 million plan to “provide free tuition to residents whose families earn less than $125,000 per year.” Unlike Cuomo’s proposal, San Francisco’s initiative is open to all residents, regardless of income — “Even the children of the founders of Facebook,” said city supervisor Jane Kim.

An attempt to reverse the city’s income gap

The City College of San Francisco has struggled for several years. Since 2012, enrollment has fallen from 90,000 to 65,000 full- and part-time students, and the school nearly lost its accreditation in the wake of fiscal planning issues.

Administrators hope the new free tuition plan will reinvigorate the school and boost enrollment by as much as 20 percent.

But the initiative aims to combat a much bigger issue: income inequality.

Kim, who put the initiative into motion, ran a campaign for Senate last year largely centered on the issue of student debt, which collectively amounts to $1 trillion nationally.

She hopes that in San Francisco — a city with one of the highest income gaps in America — free education will help reduce the burden of debt and mitigate inequality by funding it with a tax on multimillion-dollar homes.

"We as politicians, as policymakers, are responsible for at least trying to reverse [these] trends,” she said in a news conference. “And one of the best ways we can do that is investing in our citizens.”

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.