Above, Superintendent Michelle King and School Board President Steve Zimmer celebrate the new L.A. College Promise initiative with students from Alexander Hamilton and Helen Bernstein High schools.

Dr. Jill Biden is flanked by Superintendent Michelle King and School Board President Steve Zimmer at the launch of L.A. College Promise. (Photo by Shane Sato/LACCD)

Dr. Jill Biden is flanked by Superintendent Michelle King and School Board President Steve Zimmer at the launch of L.A. College Promise. (Photo by Shane Sato/LACCD)

L.A. Unified high school graduates will receive a year’s free tuition and priority admission to any Los Angeles Community College District campus beginning next fall under an ambitious initiative designed to expand opportunities for students to pursue higher education.

Dubbed L.A. College Promise, the program was launched Wednesday at a boisterous press conference at Los Angeles City College. The hour-long event drew scores of cheering high school and college students, along with such dignitaries including Mayor Eric Garcetti, Superintendent Michelle King, Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom and Dr. Jill Biden, the wife of Vice President Joe Biden.

“This is more than just tuition,” Garcetti told the crowd. “This is about books and transportation and discounts on our buses and our rail lines. It is about making sure there is counseling and support because many of us go through tough times as students. All of us have those moments when we wonder if we can succeed. All of us need a community. And if you do your part, we will make sure that we are there to make tuition and community college free in the city of Los Angeles.”

Through The Mayor’s Fund for Los Angeles, Garcetti has raised $1.75 million to cover more than half the cost of the first year of L.A. College Promise. Donors include business, educational and philanthropic groups.

The Class of 2017 will be the first to be eligible for L.A.’s Promise, which is a partnership of L.A. Unified, the Los Angeles Community College District, and the city of Los Angeles.

Mayor Eric Garcetti spearheded a fund-raising effort to support a year of free tuition for L.A. Unified graduates.

Mayor Eric Garcetti spearheaded a fund-raising effort to support a year of free tuition for L.A. Unified graduates.

There are about two dozen other “College Promise” programs in California and 36 nationwide, but L.A.’s is the largest and the first to involve a major metropolitan city.

L.A.’s Promise is expected to have a significant impact on L.A. Unified. Of the approximately 30,000 students who graduated in 2015, more than 10,000 of them immediately enrolled in community college.

“With the Promise, we will expand the number of students who have the opportunity to attend community college,” King said. “No longer will our students have to worry about the financial burdens of what to do about college. They can focus on their education. They will be welcomed in. They will have a seat in the community college.”

L.A. College Promise will allow District graduates to attend any of the nine LACCD campuses. According to the LACCD website, about half of its 1350,000 students aspire to earn credits so they can transfer to a four-year university. About 16 percent want to acquire vocational skills and another 16 percent are taking general education classes.

Dr. Jill Biden and Hamilton High School senior Crystal Cortez prepare to speak at the L.A. College Promise launch.

Dr. Jill Biden and Hamilton High School senior Crystal Cortez prepare to speak at the L.A. College Promise launch.

“This is not just about policy. It’s about people,” said Biden, who teaches English full time at a community college in Virginia. “For millions of people across our country, community college is the single best path to achieving their dreams.”

Crystal Cortez, a senior at Hamilton High School, told the crowd that her dream is to become the first in her family to earn a high school diploma and serve as a role model for her five younger siblings.

“Over the years, I have seen how hard my parents have had to work and how they have struggled because they lack a formal education,” Cortez said. “This has reinforced my commitment to graduate from high school and to get a college degree.”

Cortez plans to attend West Los Angeles College for two years before transferring to the University of Oregon and earning a teaching degree.

From left, Board President Steve Zimmer, Superintendent Michelle King and LACCD Chancellor Francisco Rodriguez cheer plans to offer free community college tuition to L.A. Unified graduates.

Board President Steve Zimmer, Superintendent Michelle King and LACCD Chancellor Francisco Rodriguez cheer plans to offer free community college tuition to L.A. Unified graduates.

“Thanks to L.A. College Promise, I will be able to attend college full time during my first year and I won’t have to juggle going to school and working,” said Cortez, whose father earned his GED several years ago from Los Angeles Trade-Tech College.

Although L.A. College Promise was formally announced Wednesday, L.A. Unified and LACCD officials have been working together for months on the plan and say there are still details to work out before the initiative takes effect.

For instance, L.A. Unified is designing a college-readiness course that will help students develop the study habits and resiliency needed in post-secondary education. The District also wants to establish links between concurrent-enrollment programs (currently being developed) and long-term goals of the Promise initiative.

Click on the photo to see video highlights of the L.A. College Promise launch.

Click on the photo to see video highlights of the L.A. College Promise launch.

“We really want to build a college-going culture at every high school,” said Jesus Angulo, director of Academic and Counseling Services.

The College Promise was inspired by a 2015 campaign spearheaded by President Barack Obama, who called for making community college free for two years.

LACCD Board President Scott Svonkin said the one year of free tuition now being offered to 2017 graduates is,”just the beginning” of what he hopes will be a much more ambitious initiative.

“We are engaging the business community – that is in need of a qualified and trained work force – and philanthropists that understand the value of community colleges to work with us and support free community college educations for generations to come.”