Skip to content

California Pays Students to Attend College in New Pilot Program

A controversial new pilot program has started paying students by the hour to attend classes and study at California community colleges. What’s more, the program appears to pay students enrolled in online and hybrid courses and those enrolled in traditional, face-to-face campus classrooms.

Called Hire UP, the experimental workforce development and guaranteed income program was funded by AB 183, an appropriation bill that the California Assembly passed in 2022 and codified in Education Code EDC 78080-78084. The legislative intent behind the measure aims to address “historic racial inequity and socioeconomic barriers to workforce participation” by boosting persistence and graduation rates.

The legislation will distribute $30 million among ten community colleges across the state during the next five years. This allocation funds periodic cash payments to active degree candidates enrolled at least half-time—a huge advantage over most undergraduate scholarships that traditionally require nothing short of full-time attendance. Moreover, the law doesn’t require recipients to pay the earnings back at any time.

Three colleges have already started paying students. In the San Francisco Bay Area, they include Santa Rosa Junior College in Sonoma County and the four-campus Solano Community College District, which operates a main campus in Fairfield and branch centers throughout the county in Vacaville and Vallejo and at Travis Air Force Base near Sacramento. In Southern California, Rio Hondo College, east of Los Angeles in Whittier, was the first to launch its version of the program.

Those enrolled in Hire UP will earn California’s minimum wage of $16 per hour in proportion to their credit-hour course loads, similar to the way that hourly workers are paid. Surprisingly enough, full-time students, at least in theory, could pocket up to almost $11,000 per semester—without any restrictions on how they spend their earnings.

Rio Hondo College’s Board of Trustees voted unanimously in November 2023 to accept a one-time $2.8 million allocation from the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office to fund their college’s participation in Hire UP. Cecilia Rocha, the dean of student equity and achievement at Rio Hondo, released a January 2024 statement saying, “This is a unique opportunity for our eligible students to get paid to finish their degree or certification. It is an honor to be one of 10 schools in California chosen to lead the way with this program that will have a profound impact on so many.”

What’s the Catch?

Not all students will qualify for the new program. California Community Colleges Assistant Vice Chancellor Gina Browne told Inside Higher Ed that the program funds “some of the most economically disadvantaged student groups we have.”

The three main student categories are former foster care children, low-income parents enrolled in the state’s California Work Opportunity and Responsibility to Kids (CalWorks) “workfare” income assistance program, and adults who were incarcerated.

Proponents of the program argue that these students are disproportionately likely to struggle financially and academically, often having to juggle as many as two part-time jobs besides childcare commitments along with their studies. The objective is to provide such students with a financial buffer, allowing them to focus on their studies without the pressure of working long hours to make ends meet.

Patrick Scott, the dean of financial aid at Solano Community College, explains to Maricela De La Cruz at Sacramento’s KCRA-TV in this video report that “these populations have historically had some difficulty in terms of retention and in terms of succeeding, primarily because they need to work.” Also, an emeritus sociology professor at San Jose State University and an expert on poverty and wealth in America, Dr. Scott Myers-Lipton, told IHE’s Kathryn Palmer that he supports the program:

If you can give students resources so they don’t have to work, they can spend more time studying and not have their grades suffer. Most of the students at Stanford aren’t working like the ones at San Jose State or the community colleges.

However, critics point out that across the nation these days, more than 70 percent of undergraduates hold jobs at some point during college. Critics also cite a 2015 Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce study, which found that employment during college correlates with increased earnings after graduation. Dr. Daniel Douglas, a sociology professor at Connecticut’s Trinity College and an expert on the issue, told The Hechinger Report that work during college signals to potential employers “that this person has soft skills, that they can get there, that they can take direction, that they can collaborate as part of a team.”

Nevertheless, beyond working up to ten hours per week, employment for most full-time undergraduate students has traditionally been viewed as an academic hazard that can lower grades—and that’s even true among students who aren’t members of disadvantaged risk groups like those served by Hire UP. Dr. Anthony Abraham Jack, a Harvard University education professor and author of The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students, says that “as you increase the number of hours you work, it crowds out opportunities for a host of things, from sleeping to studying.”

Not surprisingly, De La Cruz reports that the 85 students initially enrolled in Solano’s $3.5 million pilot program share a sense of relief.

“I don’t have to worry about a roof over my head and bills not being paid. I can focus more on my studies. I only have five classes left to graduate,” explained student Janet Cason. She earned a spot in Hire UP because she had spent the last five years of her childhood in the state’s foster care program prior to college.

Students enrolled in Hire UP also shouldn’t have to worry about the costs and time involved with constantly driving to all their classes on campus. In the most recent copy of the Hire UP Program Guide we reviewed in April 2024, we could find no language restricting enrollment in online course sections. And currently, as in other states, the overwhelming demand for online courses continues at community colleges across California.

Little-known Student Obstacles

At Santa Rosa Junior College, students in at least one of the three eligible categories number about 600 every year, according to chancellor’s office data. Rachael Cutcher, SRJC’s financial aid director, explained some of the budget obstacles these students face to higher education correspondent Adam Echelman, who writes for CalMatters and Open Campus.

Cutcher said that, on average, the school costs between $20,000 and $30,000 per year, depending on whether students pay rent, and tuition only costs less than 7 percent of those expenses. Financial aid depends on a student’s credit-hour course load, and since most SRJC students attend part-time because of their employment or childcare obligations, the average financial aid package only covers about $10,000 per year. That means each of these students has an average unmet financial need of around $15,000 annually.

Despite SRJC’s $2.6 million budget received from Hire UP, the new program can’t pay all 600 students who qualify. If the school attempted to pay all these students, Cutcher says SRJC would exhaust its budget in only a few months instead of five years.

Cutcher also said that her college is “prioritizing our formerly incarcerated students as our first tier,” because this group isn’t eligible for their own government grants or special scholarships. “Then, if we have enough funding, we’ll go to foster youth, then CalWorks,” she said.

Some of the ten community college districts in the pilot program can expect to run out of their funding long before 2029 when the Hire UP program faces a reauthorization vote by the Assembly. For example, the vice chancellor for educational services at the San Diego Community College District, Dr. Susan Topham, told Echelman that her district expects to exhaust most of Hire UP’s funds during only the first two years.

A Second Program Also Pays California Students for College

Believe it or not, Hire UP is not the only program of its kind in California. In late 2022, the state also launched a second initiative that pays students to attend college. In this program, students at 50 public and private college campuses in the state, including the University of California and the California State University system as well as community colleges are eligible to apply.

This is the California College Corps. In this new program roughly modeled after the New Deal era’s federal Works Progress Administration, California is offering $10,000 per school year in exchange for service by students to help them pursue an education that’s debt-free. An inaugural class of 3,000 fellows signed on during 2022, and in four years this service corps could be larger than the United States Peace Corps.

In this non-entitlement program, College Corps fellows receive a $10,000 annual stipend in exchange for completing 450 hours of community service work. Besides earning academic credit, the fellows also receive professional development and training during these 450 hours.

The program is structured to provide a viable alternative to student loan financing for those students who are willing to work instead. What’s more, the $10,000 stipend is designed to pay the remaining expenses for low-income undergraduates who’ve already received Pell Grant funding.

Fellows work in three sectors that policymakers consider critical to the growth of California’s economy. These sectors—K-12 education, food systems, and climate management—will expose fellows to a range of meaningful career alternatives. Many fellows tutor K-12 students to help them recover from pandemic learning interruptions. Another group works in food distribution centers to fight food insecurity. And the third group works to enhance fire resiliency, a particularly challenging problem because of increasing numbers of wildfires encroaching on California’s suburban and rural populations since 2017.

One controversial aspect of the College Corps is that, unlike Hire UP, which requires U.S. citizenship, the College Corps does not. Undocumented and nonresident students who qualify for a non-resident exemption under the AB 540 California Dream Act are eligible for work as College Corps fellows.

California’s Governor Gavin Newsom sees another, larger purpose for the College Corps: he views the program as an inspiring means of connecting Californians to one another. In a November 2022 op-ed in USA Today, he wrote:

We must find ways to restore the social contract between government and its citizens. That is what College Corps represents. It’s a contract that says if you work hard and dedicate yourself in service to others, you will be rewarded with opportunity.

And in the process, you will meet people from other walks of life, work with them toward a common goal and hopefully develop some common understanding.

That is how we build the bonds that hold a society together. As proponents of pluralism and diversity, we must also promote our commonality and shared humanity. . .

The American experiment—the radical notion that a country can bind together not only because of common background or ancestry, but on shared ideals and common purpose—is at risk.

Today, our country appears more divided than ever. We feel disconnected from each other, and that lack of common understanding is reflected in our increasingly toxic politics.

College Corps is an antidote to this crisis of isolation and division, a down payment on the reconstruction of our society and the preservation of our democracy.

And I truly believe that this relatively modest investment cannot only change lives but also change the way we live.

As Bobby Kennedy said, “Surely this bond of common faith, this bond of common goal, can begin to teach us something. . .And surely we can begin to work a little harder to bind up the wounds among us and to become in our own hearts brothers and countrymen once again.”

Douglas Mark

While a partner in a San Francisco marketing and design firm, for over 20 years Douglas Mark wrote online and print content for the world’s biggest brands, including United Airlines, Union Bank, Ziff Davis, Sebastiani and AT&T.

Since his first magazine article appeared in MacUser in 1995, he’s also written on finance and graduate business education in addition to mobile online devices, apps, and technology. He graduated in the top 1 percent of his class with a business administration degree from the University of Illinois and studied computer science at Stanford University.