The entrance to Berkeley City College on Center Street in Downtown Berkeley. Photo by Melati Citrawireja

Berkeley City College announced this week that it will extend its free college program another semester for spring 2023 and tack on additional benefits aimed at helping students stay enrolled and complete their degrees.

The program, first launched in the fall, was designed to eliminate barriers to higher education and boost enrollment, which has been declining at community colleges across California. All of the Peralta Community Colleges, including Merritt and Laney College and College of Alameda, will be offering free tuition again in the spring.

To qualify, students must live in California, and there is no longer a minimum number of courses you must be enrolled in to qualify for free tuition.

New and returning students, high school students who want to take community college classes and recreational learners, as well as students who do not qualify for financial aid, are all eligible for the free college program.

To receive benefits, new and returning students must enroll and complete a FAFSACalifornia Dream Act or California College Promise Grant application. As long as students apply, they don’t need to qualify for financial aid to be eligible for free tuition.

Students from out of state, including international students, are not eligible.

BCC is adding other perks, like a free lunch catered by local businesses like Crave Subs. For students who attend six units worth of classes in person, BCC will cover parking and provide a $150 Clipper card. Plus, students taking a full course load may be eligible for “Spring Success Grant” of up to $1,500 if they apply for a certificate or degree program in the spring or summer.

The added benefits are designed to retain students already enrolled at BCC. “We hope that by expanding the benefits with the focus on retention and completion that we can help incentivize the students that we do have to continue studying here at BCC,” said Thomas Rizza, a spokesperson for the college.

Enrollment at BCC ticked upward from 10,612 students enrolled in fall 2021 to 10,842 students this fall. The number of full-time equivalent students, a number that represents the equivalent number of students taking a full class load, also rose year-to-year from 1,224 to 1,290. Rizza said he thought the increase in enrollment after several years of declining was tied to the pilot free program.

At the same time, the number of course sections offered by the college dropped from 416 to 399. Most classes at BCC (about 70%) are offered online only.

While the free college program was expected to cost BCC $1.9 million, it only cost $400,000 in the fall since many students who applied were already eligible for financial aid through existing state and federal programs.

“Many of our students don’t know that they qualify for financial aid,” Rizza said. “If we could just get them to fill out that form … then we can come in and pick up the tab for people who don’t qualify.”

The COVID-19 relief dollars that funded the program are expected to dry up next year, but Rizza said extending the program, including free tuition and other added benefits, was still on the table for next year. “It’s kind of a test case to see if this is something that’s sustainable moving forward,” he said.

Enrollment for the spring semester begins Nov. 21 and classes start Jan. 23.

Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...