Michele Haggar, director of career and transfer connections at Southwestern College, talks to a class of high school students during a recruitment event on March 16, 2023. Courtesy of Southwestern College

Why this matters

Most new jobs created in the county through the end of the decade will require some form of postsecondary education, but enrollment at community colleges, essential training grounds for skilled workers, has been declining.

A new California law aims to make college more affordable for students living on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border — a move supporters say will fuel enrollment and the San Diego region’s future workforce needs.

Starting as soon as next year, low-income residents of Mexico who live within 45 miles of the border could pay in-state tuition at nine community colleges in San Diego and Imperial counties. The tuition reductions offered under the new law, AB 91, will take effect once universities in the Mexican state of Baja California agree to provide similar tuition reductions for California residents. Local community college leaders are hopeful about the collaboration. 

The tuition-reduction program comes as California’s community colleges rebound from enrollment declines during the pandemic and as more workers are needed to fuel the local economy. The region needs to double the number of individuals who complete postsecondary education by 2030 so that 20,000 new skilled workers enter the workforce each year, according to a report by the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corporation. 

The new law, sponsored by state Assemblymember David Alvarez, a San Diego Democrat, and signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday, estimates about 1,350 students could benefit from the initiative every year. 

“We have a very unique, special situation where we can attract students not just from other parts of California and within San Diego, but also from across the border in our border region,” Alvarez told inewsource.  

“We don’t have to penalize students with the foreign students fee,” he added. “(They) are really our regional assets.”

The proposed tuition reductions are significant, as out-of-state tuition usually costs much more than in-state.

A photo of Southwestern College, a community college located in Chula Vista. Courtesy of Southwestern College

At Southwestern College in Chula Vista, which is participating in the pilot, nonresidents pay roughly $4,000 a semester, more than seven times the $550 residents pay, according to the school’s website.

Community colleges in California require out-of-state students to pay out-of-state tuition unless they qualify for an exemption. 

AB91 expands the eligibility for a tuition exemption to include students who are low-income residents of Mexico, register for lower division courses at a participating community college in San Diego or Imperial counties and live within 45 miles of the border. 

Participating community colleges will develop a shared policy for determining who meets the residency and income requirements.

See which colleges in San Diego and Imperial counties are participating
  • Southwestern College, Chula Vista 
  • San Diego City College, San Diego 
  • San Diego Mesa College, San Diego 
  • San Diego Miramar College, San Diego 
  • MiraCosta College, Oceanside 
  • Palomar College, San Marcos 
  • Cuyamaca College, El Cajon 
  • Grossmont College, El Cajon 
  • Imperial Valley College, Imperial

Removing the financial barrier for Mexican students to attend San Diego community colleges will help boost enrollment for the schools, Mark Sanchez, superintendent and president of Southwestern College, told inewsource

And limited financial resources should not keep students from pursuing higher education, he added. 

“We’re simply leveling the playing field in terms of what they pay for enrollment,” he said. 

Southwestern College is the region’s closest community college to the state’s U.S.-Mexico border. Many students dropped out of college during the pandemic and they haven’t come back, Sanchez said. 

Roughly 25,000 students were enrolled at Southwestern College last year, a 14% decrease from the 2019-20 school year, according to state data. Most students –– 97% –– were also U.S. citizens. 

The program will also help the region’s workforce keep up with economic demand, he said. 

Eighty-four percent of new jobs created between 2022 and 2030 will require an individual to have some form of postsecondary education, the county’s Economic Development Corporation research shows. 

“I think there’s a misnomer out there that college is no longer necessary,” Sanchez said, adding, “college is as important as it’s ever been.” 

Participating colleges are estimated to get about $6 million total in state funding each year, Sanchez said. 

Lawmakers could decide to extend or expand the program in 2029, after the pilot program expires. At that time, the state will produce a report evaluating the program’s successes, including demographics of participating students and graduation rates. 

Alvarez said the state will be most focused on the student success rate, including whether these students ultimately graduate, if they transfer to a four-year university and eventually enter the workforce.

“I think at the end we’ll see that the data will demonstrate that this investment is really worth it and hopefully we can talk about how to expand the opportunities for other students,” Alvarez said. 

Type of Content

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Andrea Figueroa Briseño is an investigative reporter at inewsource and a corps member for Report For America, a national service program that tasks journalists to report on undercovered communities and issues. She covers education and focuses her reporting on Latino students and families who are part...