Two influential Santa Barbara women — Congresswoman Lois Capps and Santa Barbara City College President Lori Gaskin — sat down Friday morning to talk about higher education, focusing on President Barack Obama’s recent proposal to make two years of community college free for all.

Dubbed America’s College Promise, the proposed program would offer two years of community college at no cost to students on track to complete a two-year degree or half of a four-year degree. Gaskin and Capps agreed the program would perhaps make college more universal — an extension of K-12.

Gaskin called the state’s higher education system “elegant” and “brilliant,” but she said the financial burden has been “onerous” for some students. Though California has the lowest community college tuition costs in the country — $1,383 compared to an average of $3,800 annually — the cost of books, computers, and living expenses has forced students she knows to drop out, Gaskin said. The cost of books and supplies are estimated at $1,710, according to SBCC’s website, and room and board and personal expenses are another at $4,518 and $3,095, respectively.

Congress would be left to implement Obama’s plan, which Capps called a “tall order.” States would be able to opt in to the program. Because California already heavily subsidizes public institutions, Gaskin added it is “is not a given that California would sign on.”

“When I went to college, I didn’t worry about [the cost] and it was [still] challenging,” said Capps, who has a bachelor’s degree in nursing. The program she attended did not allow students to work while in school. “I think I would have crumbled,” she said. Capps was lucky enough to have parents who started a college savings account for her at a young age. “But not everyone has that,” Capps said.

Today, community college students are often the first in their family to go to college and many are economically disadvantaged, Gaskin added. “They are juggling a lot,” she said. Currently, SBCC’s counselor to pupil ratio is about one counselor per 1,300 students. That number, Gaskin said, should be closer to one counselor for every 500 students.

About 2.1 million students attend community colleges in California; about 446,000 students attend a CSU school; around 220,000 students are enrolled at a UC campus. “When you don’t [invest in education], it’s so costly,” Capps said. And job opportunities without college degrees are diminishing, she added. “I feel like we as a society, if we care about the end product, we have to make it possible,” Capps said.

Last September, Governor Jerry Brown signed into law a pilot program that allows 15 community colleges in the state to offer bachelor’s degrees. The catch is that programs that are already offered at a CSU or UC campus would not be eligible. Because of this stipulation, Gaskin said SBCC has chosen not apply for the program.


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