The Promise of Free Education Is Alive and Well in Santa Barbara

Despite Pandemic Ups and Downs, the SBCC Promise Still Delivers

The Promise of Free Education Is Alive and Well

Despite Pandemic Ups and Downs,
the SBCC Promise Still Delivers

By Leslie Dinaberg | November 10, 2022

The Promise graduates celebrate at La Playa Stadium. | Credit: Courtesy
Read all of the stories in our “Schools of Thought 2022” cover here.

It’s been six years since the Promise program began providing regional high school graduates the opportunity to attend Santa Barbara City College full-time, free of charge, for up to two years. With the pandemic throwing all kinds of curveballs into the higher education system, we asked SBCC Foundation CEO Geoff Green for an update on what’s going on with the program today.

“The Promise still remains the best thing since sliced bread,” says Green, with his characteristic enthusiasm. He’s got the data to back it up: “almost 6,500 students and families have taken advantage of it in these first six years, so the Promise is absolutely having the impact that we were hoping for when we launched in 2016.”

At that time, after crunching the data from the region’s K-12 districts, 1,345 students per cohort was the estimate. “So we figured we’d have somewhere between 1,300 and 1,400 students at a time once it was fully up and running,” says Green. “By 2019, we actually were at 1,700 students, so it was even more attractive than we’d initially projected. … But once COVID hit and everything pivoted to online, and childcare and other things were shut down at schools, and jobs were lost, we dropped all the way down to 1,100 students. So there was a major impact there. We saw nearly a 35 percent drop in participation enrollment in the Promise.”

Credit: Melanie Belanger

This was an even steeper drop than the overall enrollment drop at SBCC, says Green. “Peak enrollment at SBCC was all the way back in 2010. That goes along with a national trend on the heels of the Great Recession,” he continues. “Enrollment is counter-cyclical with employment, which makes sense, if you think about it. If more people are unemployed or at risk of unemployment, they’re going to be enrolled in upskilling, or new ventures, or going back to school, or what have you, so that was normal. But our drop in enrollment since then has other factors, including challenges with housing and difficulties with the international students program. The Trump Administration certainly made that difficult. Then on the heels of that, COVID.”

In terms of the Promise, another factor in the drop was that some students remained in school but could not continue a full-time schedule due to family and childcare issues, employment issues, “or just online learning was not the best way for them, which is certainly true for a lot of students.”

That situation was the impetus for what Green calls a “no-fault return policy.” A statement on their website reads: “The COVID-19 pandemic has caused many students to put college on hold. If you graduated from high school in Southern Santa Barbara County during the pandemic and postponed college, or if you were an SBCC Promise student during this time and put college on hold, we want you back! In keeping with our commitment to increase college access, this fall the SBCC Foundation will be welcoming back all Promise students whose academic journeys were temporarily halted due to COVID-19. No questions asked.”

Credit: Courtesy

After some fluctuations in enrollment, Green is happy to report that, “1,368 students are fully in good standing of meeting all the requirements of the Promise — meaning they are full-time students.”

In terms of financing the program going forward, Green says, “It pencils out at any level, because we think it’s the right thing to do. Right now, it’s almost exactly the size we expected it to be when we first started six years ago. … Every dollar that supports the Promise is privately given. And those fundraising and expenditure cycles are out of phase. So there’s periods where we’re raising a lot more than we need. And then there’s periods where we’re spending a lot more than we have. And because of the size of this foundation, we can do that.”

He continues, “I think the proof of concept has long been established; this works. It remains a national leader. And we absolutely believe in it.”


Credit: Courtesy
Read all of the stories in our “Schools of Thought 2022” cover here.


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