OAKLAND (CBS SF) — More than $12 million in federal relief funds for the Peralta Community College District will wipe out the debt for thousands of East Bay college students and provide additional future financial aid, the district announced Monday.

Students at the four Peralta colleges – Berkeley City College, College of Alameda, Laney College, and Merritt College – will have their student debt from the most recent three semesters dismissed with $2.77 million, with an additional $9.5 million earmarked for financial aid in future semesters. The debt forgiveness goes back to the pandemic-impacted summer of 2020.

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More than 30,000 students are enrolled in the four colleges and serve one of the most diverse student bodies in the Bay Area, with more than 60% of our students qualifying as low-income and 49% being first-generation, according to the district.

The relief funds come from a federal Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) grant.

“With these funds, Peralta is demolishing the biggest roadblock between our students and their ability to continue their educational journey,” said Peralta Chancellor Dr. Jannett N. Jackson in a prepared statement. “By clearing the path for them, we are realizing our mission to provide equitable access to education in our communities and empower our students to achieve their highest aspirations.”

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The district said despite the lower costs of community college compared with four-year universities, overall costs can still be challenging for students with fewer means.

“One of the main goals of the federal government’s HEERF grants is to make college more affordable to students, especially those with greater needs,” said Dr. Rudy Besikof, President of Laney College in a statement. “For the 2,690 Laney students receiving $739,056 in debt relief, this truly represents a fresh start, and these are students we will absolutely be inviting back to our College.”

“This could not have come at a more opportune time, as the pandemic has exacerbated the fiscal realities of students living in the Bay Area,” said a statement from Berkeley City College President Dr. Angélica Garcia. “Relieving BCC students of debt accrued during the pandemic will enable many students to finish their term here, leading to employment or their transfer to a four-year institution and earn their degrees.”

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“I’m thrilled that we are able to reward the hard work and dedication of our students by taking away the burden that is student debt,” said Dr. David M. Johnson, president of Merritt College. “Along with the additional financial aid funds, we can ensure that more students will achieve their educational goals.”