COMMUNITY REPORT: Free college promise helps L.A. build for the future

Ryondell Bourne has a sharp mind, an intellectual bearing and a passion for making a difference in the world.

The 17-year-old Washington High School student counts judges and attorneys among the mentors helping him plot his future at a South L.A. YouthSource Center, where the city helps give young people the tools to succeed. He wants to go to Morehouse or Howard universities someday, where he’ll study civil rights or corporate law because, as he told us, “there’s a lot happening in our criminal justice system right now and I want to hold people accountable for injustices in our communities.”

But first, Ryondell has a plan: he wants to do a year or two at community college. He’s already earning college credits in a life skills class taught by a West L.A. College professor, and believes that enrolling there — or perhaps at L.A. Southwest College, which is even closer to his home — “will help me get some experience and teach me the little fundamentals I need to make it all the way through.”

Young Angelenos like Ryondell — who have boundless potential and drive, and only need the opportunity to succeed — were on my mind when I announced the L.A. College Promise during my state of the city address in April.

We’ve been raising money and awareness ever since — and beginning with the next class of Los Angeles Unified School District graduates, we’ll be offering a tuition-free year at any one of the nine campuses in the Los Angeles Community College District. Promise students will also get academic counseling, financial aid assistance, priority enrollment and other benefits to kick start their journey to graduation day.

Once a requirement of select professions, a degree has become increasingly necessary for upward mobility.

Unemployment is highest among Americans who completed their education with a high school diploma or less. And it has been estimated that by 2020, 35 percent of job openings will require at least a bachelor’s degree and 30 percent will require some college or an associate’s degree.

At the same time that college has become more critical, it has remained inaccessible to many young people. They worry about being able to afford the tuition. They wonder how much student debt they can shoulder.

Unlike their peers with more resources, these kids question whether higher education is even an option for them.

If we acknowledge the fact that education is a key that unlocks doors of opportunity, then we must also accept responsibility for making that key accessible to every young person.

President Barack Obama said as much in his State of the Union address last year; I was privileged to be in the audience when he proposed making college as free and universal as high school.

His call inspired me, because I understand its transformative potential for Los Angeles. LAUSD is not only the nation’s second-largest school district, it has one of the highest concentrations of low-income students in California — with 77 percent qualifying for the federal subsidized lunch program.

The L.A. College Promise will make a tremendous difference in the lives of those students, but it also has the potential to touch millions more across the United States. If the largest city in the largest state can make higher education universally accessible, communities everywhere can see what’s possible when we invest — and believe — in our young people.

“Getting free tuition for a year will be a big stress-reliever,” Ryondell said. “It will help me and my family save money for other necessities, and just basically give me more opportunity to focus on my studies. [Other organizations] will help with books and other expenses, but this will be a great way to get started with college. I can’t wait.”

I can’t either — because when the first L.A. College Promise students step onto their new campus next fall, they’ll embody an ideal that speaks to who we are as a people: We’re making our city a place where your prospects are shaped not by your income or circumstances, but by your willingness to dream big and put in the work.

Mayor Eric Garcetti’s “Community Report” column runs monthly in The Wave.


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