Keeping the Promise at Santa Barbara City College
Every Local High School Grad Can Get a Free Education
By Delaney Smith | May 6, 2021
Juwan Vega was inspired by his father’s business — an upholstery shop on North Nopal Street — and knew he wanted to build a business of his own. He enrolled in the entrepreneurship academy at San Marcos High School and had his sights set on pursuing a business degree.
But there was just one problem.
Though he was accepted into several Cal State colleges, he was still unable to secure enough financial aid to actually enroll. Vega was unsure of how to pursue his degree until a representative from Santa Barbara City College visited his high school and gave a presentation on the Promise, a groundbreaking initiative that fully covers all student tuition, books, and fees for two years for local high school graduates.
He was one of the first students to take part in the Promise at its inception in 2016. He has since completed his credits at Santa Barbara City College and has transferred to Cal State Los Angeles, where he is pursuing his bachelor’s degree in business. Because of the Promise, he didn’t have to pay for any classes or books at City College, so he was able to save up enough money to cover his tuition at Cal State L.A.
During his time at City College, Vega said he was able to sharpen his business dream even further, forming a more specific vision. He wants to open his own clothing and apparel store and combine it with his passion for social justice.
“I want to bring out this brand of clothing that supports and promotes diversity and equity in a society where diversity and equity is always challenged and has always been a struggle for us people of different backgrounds and different colors,” Vega said.
Without the Promise, Vega said, his clothing store dream might not have had a chance.
At a time when President Joe Biden just proposed free community college tuition across the nation, here on the American Rivera, Santa Barbara City College, philanthropic activists, and educational leaders are way ahead of the curve.
Biden’s initiative coincides with the nation’s community colleges facing serious enrollment decline. The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center recently reported a 9.5 percent decline at community colleges nationwide, and SBCC dropped dramatically from 20,232 in the fall of 2009 to 14,179 in the fall of 2020.
There are many factors behind the national decline. For one, many students are sick of online classes and may have decided to wait out the pandemic until classes can resume in person again. For another, community colleges tend to attract the type of students who are most financially impacted by the pandemic, forcing many to drop classes and focus on work instead.
The challenge now will be for colleges to find ways to encourage students to return to their studies.
Five Years in — What’s Changed?
Vega is just one of about 5,000 Santa Barbara students who have benefited from the Promise since it began five years ago. When at its highest in the fall semesters of 2018 and 2019, Promise enrollment plateaued around 1,700 students. Nearly a third of the enrollment number was lost over the pandemic last year, with 1,100 currently enrolled.
“What happened is a lot of students stayed enrolled, but they didn’t stay full-time,” said Geoff Green, the chief executive officer for the Santa Barbara City College Foundation, which launched the Promise. “And, of course, a greater number of Promise students are the most marginalized, are the ones suffering in poverty and all kinds of other challenging situations. Those are exactly the students that are most impacted by it. We actually saw a greater impact than the general population of the school.”
The SBCC Foundation is a separate entity from SBCC and has been providing the college with philanthropic support since 1976. Green, who took over as executive officer of the foundation in 2015, launched the SBCC Promise in the very next year.
Green said the foundation is working on bringing back students. This fall, the Foundation will alter its original requirement that students stay in the program continuously and instead, for this next year, allow anyone who left the Promise during the pandemic to reenter, no questions asked. But generally, the other requirements that were set five years ago will remain the same.
To qualify for the Promise, you must complete your high school education within the Santa Barbara Community College District — from Carpinteria to Gaviota. They must enroll at City College in the fall or spring semester immediately after completing high school, whether it be graduation, GED completion, or an equivalent. Any high school in the area, whether it is public, private, or home school, is eligible. There is no high school GED requirement or income restrictions. Any local graduated student has access to the program.
One of the requirements for staying in the Promise is that students must remain in good academic standing or keep a GPA of 2.0 or higher. More than half of all Promise students far surpass that with a GPA of 3.0 or higher.
In addition to remaining in good academic standing, Promise students must enroll in full-time classes, see an academic counselor at least once per semester, and apply for financial aid every academic year. In return, students receive two full years of tuition, books, and materials, and other mandatory fees. Green said that although some of the requirements can seem like a barrier for students, it has been proved that students are more likely to succeed if they have firm guidelines and are required to stick to them.
“I was connected with wonderful counselors that just kind of laid out all my different options based on my interests and my passions about serving those in need,” said past Promise student Leslie Marin about the academic counselor requirement. “They mentioned sociology would maybe be up my alley, and as soon as they started telling me more about the major it really sparked my interest, and I declared myself a sociology major and I’ve stuck with it ever since.”
Marin said there initially weren’t many opportunities for her as an undocumented student, and the Promise opened doors for her. She is now about to graduate from UCSB on a full-ride scholarship for sociology. The academic counseling requirement really pushed her to explore herself and pick her major.
“Before I got here, hearing from the manager means ‘I did something bad,’” said Sergio Lagunas, who has been manager for the Promise since fall of 2019. “And I really hated that students didn’t see us as an opportunity, but a barrier.”
Lagunas, a product of community colleges himself, aims to develop more of a connection with Promise students and to change the culture around it.
“I’m a first-generation immigrant in this country,” Lagunas said. “Just that experience alone really has driven me to move forward as much as I can and to help as many people, whichever level they’re at in life. And community college really is the setting for this because students can be recently incarcerated, system impacted, post-traditional, they just took a little longer to see the opportunity in higher education, or students that are straight out of high school that have no idea what’s going on. It’s there for everyone.”
Lagunas wants his office — now on Zoom — to be a space where he can connect with Promise students and help them to thrive. He focuses on always saying something optimistic and rewarding to students for what they’ve accomplished, rather than punishing them for what they don’t yet know.
He is also trying out new ways to communicate with students. For example, he recently started an internal newsletter for Promise students called Persist that gives updates about the initiative and keeps more regular communication between the Promise office and students.
Across the Nation
The Santa Barbara City College Promise was recognized after its launch in 2016 by the now-First Lady Dr. Jill Biden because of its unique model that is unparalleled elsewhere.
There were two national networks of Promise efforts at the time Green set out to create the SBCC Promise in 2016. He interviewed more than 100 people involved in the networks and did extensive research before launching SBCC’s one-of-a-kind initiative.
He learned that in order to create an equitable program, it needed to be completely comprehensive and a first-dollar initiative, meaning that even if a student is eligible for other scholarships, the Promise still pays first and in full, rather than filling in funding gaps left behind from scholarships or other financial aid. The Promise is also offered to anyone, regardless of income. These alone are rare in other Promise programs.
Powered By Donors
The fact that the Promise is entirely privately funded also makes it the only one of its kind in more than 300 college Promise initiatives. The SBCC Foundation is the single largest community college foundation in the state and one of the largest in the country, giving it the ability to build such a model. At peak enrollment, the foundation was giving about $1.2 million per semester to the Promise.
“The first year, there was a luncheon for the donors, and we got to sit at a table with some of the students who had benefited,” said Lois Phillips and her husband, Dennis Thompson, the first donors to the SBCC Promise in 2016. “They were very specific in explaining to us why they would not have been at college if it weren’t for the Promise.
“I know without that, a lot of kids would be struggling to, you know, work a couple of jobs and maybe take them three or four or five years to get through city college. So it was inspiring to see them accomplishing their goals.”
Phillips and Thompson were just two of close to 2,000 donors who have contributed to the SBCC Foundation. The philanthropic culture of Santa Barbara has paved the way for the foundation to be successful in launching the privately funded Promise.
“I really liked that it was a straightforward way to take financial concerns out of the picture,” said Jon Clark, president of the James S. Bower Foundation, one of the first foundations to donate to the Promise. “Even though it’s open for everybody, there are just so many students who have such financial strains that even small amounts of money are keeping them from advancing their education. And those are the students who we want to help and why we chose to support the Promise.”