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It's Not About Free College

by Valerie Johnson
May 22, 2019

This interview with Valerie Johnson was conducted and condensed by frank news.

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Valerie Johnson, Student Senate leader, receives the Dr. Cheryl Marshall Endowed Scholarship for Leadership & Service from Marshall, former president of Crafton Hills College.

My name is Valerie Johnson. I am a second year student at Crafton Hills College in the San Bernardino Community College District. I started community college right out of high school, so I'm a traditional student. I am a child of two public educators. Both my parents went to college, so they were like, "Yeah, go to college." But a lot of it now is very different than when they went, so there wasn't a lot they could help me with as far as figuring out college. But they were very supportive.

I got involved in advocacy and student leadership upon entering community college. I knew that I wanted to make the most of my time during my educational journey, so I joined student government. That's when I realized that a lot of students are really struggling, and a lot of the struggles I had been facing were common.

I was able to benefit from the board of governors fee waiver, now called the California College Promise Grant, not to be confused with the other college promise. That was something that really allowed me to focus on the costs I was facing outside of tuition – which is the main cost for so many community college students. Because I was able to receive that fee waiver, I was able to focus on school, and focus on being involved and making the most of my college experience, instead of trying to work multiple jobs...which I did anyways. But that fee waiver was really beneficial for me, as it is for so many students, and it was really important to my educational journey.

I also received Pell Grant. I am a low income student. It has been tough a lot of my higher educational journey to balance. I don't know that I would have been able to do it without the gift aid that I received. But at one point I worked three jobs. Eventually I was able to scale back down to two. Now I work one, which I am really grateful for.

My story is not uncommon, and so many students have a tougher journey than I do. I have been able to stay on track and I'm getting out in two years, which is really rare. I attribute it to some stellar guidance I got through the counseling at my school, and also being able to do school full time, which so many students aren't able to because of the outside costs of tuition, which is why we need to reform financial aid a lot.

This problem is twofold. There's the cost of tuition – which is paralyzing, or eliminates a lot of people from the higher education conversation entirely, and then there's the cost of living, of hunger, of food scarcity, of homelessness and houselessness. When you say 'restructuring financial aid,' what do you mean exactly? 

One of the many issues I have spoken to students about, and experienced myself, is the work, school, life, family balance. No one has time to work the 60 hours a week required to support themselves and their dependents, and then take a full-time course load on top of that. Let alone do well enough to maintain eligibility for financial aid and excel in their coursework.

Oour state legislature has decided that investing in higher education isn't as important as it used to be. One factor that has negatively impacted students has been the way the legislature has decided to look at college as a tuition system, and not an all-encompassing fee system. They oftentimes look at, and talk about, and prioritize, and make policies around college thinking that the tuition is a student's main, and sometimes only cost.

It's really tuition and outside fees that students are facing.

Because our legislators aren't looking at the full picture, students are getting left behind and they're falling through the cracks. They're not getting the aid they need to continue their educational journey and reach their educational goals. Because of that we're seeing students complete at lower rates, and we're seeing students unable to achieve their educational goals because of a lack of financial support.

We're asking students to do one thing, but we're providing them with the resources to do almost none of it.

To finish in two years and to do a successful transfer when facing financial struggles, it's lucky. I'm lucky that I had great counselors; I'm lucky that my parents were able to help me somewhat so that I could stay on track. I have privilege that some students don't. And I think that that is the only reason I was able to complete my educational goals thus far. So many policy makers are out of touch with the California Community College system as it is now, and with the typical California student. And that is resulting in policy that is not what students need.

Do you find yourself in a debate with people about whether or not college should be free, period?

I’m a white, female student, I come from a lower, middle-class background – the American dream used to be achievable for someone like me. But now with the way that college is, it's not. A lot of people talk down to you, think you're misinformed, and you just want free handouts. It’s typically folks who are older than us, and typically folks who had very different college experiences than us.

To them I would say, it's not about free college. It's about a reinvestment in our students by the state and by our country.

Wherever those funds come from. Because paying for college is a relatively new thing. A while back it was important for students to receive a higher education and public schools were publicly funded. Just like every student deserves and should be entitled to a PK through 12 education, those students should also be entitled to a higher education should they wish to pursue one. That notion was not supported by the legislature, and they decided to roll back support for higher education, and that roll back resulted in students carrying that burden on their backs.

Some of these institutions have massive endowments, they could have free college if they wanted, they just don't. It makes higher education seem like a less important thing when our state and our country doesn't invest in it. Because money equals importance.

What you invest in relates to what you think is important, so if higher education is going to be talked about with the importance that it is, then it needs to be backed up by the funding.

Everyone's like "oh you need a college degree to succeed in this time and era" but sometimes it’s impossible for some students. The system is set up for some students to fail. And that's due to a lack of investment from our state. California colleges used to be free. The fact that they're not now means that our state has decided to fund them less than they have in the past, and that's a failure for students.

Can you talk about the funding committee you’re a part of?

The name of the committee is the Students Centered Funding Formula Oversight Committee. I serve as the vice-chair of the committee, and the only student representative on the committee, representing over 2.1 million students in the system. The funding formula was promoted and introduced by former Governor Brown. In the past funding for colleges has solely been tied to how many students attend that college. If you have X amount of students, you get X amount of funding and that's that.

The newer formula aims to address some of the inequities students have been facing, and address completion rates. The new funding formula breaks up the way community colleges are funded into three separate levels. The large bulk of the funding is still attributed to the number of full-time equivalent students, they call it FTES. What has been added now is two other sections that have funding tied to them.

One of the sections is in regards to serving our minority students and students who faced challenges and may require some extra support. Those students look like foster students, or students who are extremely low-income, students who have experienced homelessness, black and brown students, students who basically are considered minority students, and students who might need a bit more help in order for them to continue and advance their educational journey and reach their educational goals. By tying funding to that, it incentivizes campuses and colleges to address those students and support them like they need.

Because, like I said earlier, when you tie funding to something it is because you care about it and it's a priority to you.

Tying funding to serving our most vulnerable students is a huge step in the right direction because it forces colleges to acknowledge some of the shortcomings of their work to serve those students, and actively work to bridge those gaps.

The last section is in regards to completion. One problem that was, and still is rampant in the community colleges, is schools will work very hard to get students in the door. They will provide all the support at the beginning or before the semester in order to make sure the student knows what's going on, orientation, or whatever. They get their butts in those seats.

Once those butts are in those seats, we see that the support stops. Because that's where the funding is tied. Once you get the butt in the seat, the funding is there and it's yours and you can have it. So that's what colleges have been working so hard to do.

This new metric is tied to completion so that there's a point system. An associate's degree awarded to a student would be tied to funding for the school. This is also in regards to certificates, traditional associate's degrees, tied to transfer rates. By tying funding to this, again we're saying, "We don't want you to stop supporting students once you get their butt in the seat. We want you to make sure that those students are supported the whole way through."

I know this sounds harsh, but if we as students aren't worth anything to the college after they get our butts in the door, then they're going to abandon us because its financially best for them to go and look for the next student.

But if it’s financially responsible for them to see me all the way through, then that's what they're going to do. If colleges are actively looking to increase their completion rates because they know that its tied to funding, I think we'll see higher completion rates. Because that results in more funding for the colleges. That's that last metric.

So your metrics look like: big bulk, butts in seats. Smaller bulk, serving our most needy students, and our students who require the most support. Last bulk, completion and rates of completion. The funding formula oversight committee is charged with providing recommendations to the legislator for the implementation of the formula. There has been a lot of response in regards to the formula, and that response has been varied. We've had many different inputs from many different constituents and stakeholder groups. That feedback helps us determine recommendations that we provide to the legislator.

We are tasked with, basically, making sure the formula works like it's supposed to, and providing recommendations to the legislator on how they can tweak it to be the most effective.