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SF City College is free. But classes are being axed, teachers cut and enrollment is down

City College of San Francisco’s Ocean Campus is pictured on Thursday, June 7, 2022. | Juliana Yamada/The Standard

San Francisco City College is losing students, government funding, teaching staff and axing classes—all while being completely free for San Franciscans to attend.

City College’s checkered history saw it almost lose accreditation five years ago—which would have closed the institution down—and the school found itself in the same trouble again in 2020.

An audit found that the college has been operating at a deficit of tens of millions of dollars for the past decade, while losing nearly 30,000 students, putting it in a state of perpetual crisis. From 2017 to 2020, its average deficit was around $13 million.

City College is not alone. San Francisco’s undergraduate population as a whole dropped by 10,000 from 2019 to 2021. California community colleges lost over 300,000 in the same timeframe. As for the rest of the country, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center revealed in May that all postsecondary institutions have lost a combined 1.3 million students. 

Less students means less federal and state funding, jobs and classes. For the faculty and students at City College, who feel those consequences most directly, they have characterized this cycle as cannibalization. Last May, 38 full-time teaching staff were laid off, and programs such as English as a second language, music and creative arts slashed by 26%. But since 2018, that figure is down around 50%.

Since the onset of the pandemic, City College has been relegated to mostly an online institution. This fall, as it tries to lure more students back in person, some are wondering what is left to come back to. 

“It feels like we’re losing the community spirit that makes this place special,” said 21-year-old computer science major Connie Le. The Richmond native is in her fifth year at City College and said that the main Ocean Campus only felt “30% back” from how she remembered it. At a recent sit down with other students at the Student Union after her class, she lamented how the latest round of cuts had left her with fewer options to register for. 

“We used to be able to choose between different professors and have a variety of class times,” Le said. “Now, if you want to come back [in person], there’s one choice, if at all. What message is the college trying to put out there?”

‘Everyone Should Be Taking Advantage of This’

Onyx Hunter, 19, English major, recounts his experience with the Free City College program in between classes at San Francisco City College on Oct. 5, 2022. | Kevin V. Nguyen/The Standard

As the national Democratic Party waffled back and forth on the concept of “free community college,” San Francisco took the lead on the issue. In 2017, it announced it would use money raised from a transfer tax to pay for the entire cost of tuition for San Franciscans going to City College. 

The Free City College (FCC) program was hailed as a strong response to the issue of declining enrollment. It was the first program of its kind, aiding students irrespective of their financial status.

Additionally, for students who already have their tuition covered by separate state and federal aid, the program also provides grants to help pay for school-related expenses.

Onyx Hunter moved to San Francisco from Tracy his senior year of high school in hopes of participating in the program. The 19-year-old English major said that promotional ads for the program were routinely emailed to him before and after his graduation. Today, he is eligible for both the tuition waiver and $250 stipend for full-time students. 

“Everyone should be taking advantage of this,” Hunter said. “You get into a class here, and it feels like you’re amongst like-minded people who’ve been through what you’re going through.” 

After a two-year trial run where enrollment did improve, the city and county announced in 2019 that it would renew the program for at least another decade

But John Rizzo, who has served on the board of trustees of City College since 2006, said that there have been some misconceptions about how the program actually benefited the school. 

“It is undoubtedly a good thing for the residents of San Francisco and our students,” Rizzo told The Standard. “But FCC hasn’t helped the college itself. It’s not the same as the traditional funding we get from the government.”

The program is administered by the college in partnership with the SF Department of Children, Youth and Their Families. Under the deal, City College adds up all of the free tuition it has given out and submits a quarterly invoice to the department, which then makes the payment within 30 days. 

Can ‘Prop O’ and New Leadership Stem the Tide?

The Free City College Program advertised near a bus stop in front of San Francisco City College on Oct. 5, 2022. | Kevin V. Nguyen/The Standard

With four seats up for grabs, the makeup of City College’s Board of Trustees could drastically change this November.

Alongside her allies Anita Martinez, Vick Chung and Aldolfo Velasquez, former educator and retired president of United Educators of San Francisco Susan Solomon said that she was moved to run for office because she was unable to reconcile the hopeful message of Free City College with the layoffs and cuts of last May

“I just thought it was all very shortsighted,” Solomon said. “What’s the point of having [cash] reserves if we don’t invest it in the students who will ultimately lose out?” 

Rizzo defended the board’s decision, saying that the layoffs were “no doubt the right decision.” 

“We could not afford another accreditation dispute,” he said. “If we had lost it, the state would have come in and likely done even more layoffs than we did. You just cannot spend the money that you do not have.”

He added that he believed City College was now in its “best financial position in over 10 years” and that with a balanced budget, the board could finally move forward with much-needed renovation and construction projects as opposed to planning what else to cut. 

Trustee Alan Wong was elected to the board in 2020 and also worked as an education advisor to Gordon Mar, back when the District 4 supervisor led the effort to extend Free City College in 2019. In May, Wong was the one dissenting vote against the layoffs. 

“I just wish all sides bargained until the very last moment,” Wong told The Standard. But with the decision now behind them, Wong said that the college needs to focus on turning around its current situation before enrollment gets even worse. That includes getting as many students and teachers back in person as possible, forgiving select student debt and advocating for Proposition O, which is on the ballot next month

Needing only a simple majority to pass, the measure would impose an additional parcel tax on San Francisco property owners with revenue going directly to City College. 

“We need to focus on getting Prop. O passed,” Wong said. “That is how we make City College the community college that we want it to be.” 

Rizzo struck a more measured tone than his colleague on Prop. O.

“I’m never going to say no to additional funding,” Rizzo said. “But I’ve been told that it could be challenged legally if passed, so it’s no guarantee.”

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Anabel Ibáñez was running for a Board of Trustees position when she had withdrawn her candidacy.

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article failed to clarify that certain classes were cut by almost 50% since 2018. This has been amended.