Fulfilling a Promise

Constance Carroll (center), chancellor of the San Diego Community College District, and San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer (left of Carroll) with college trustees and students at the launch of the San Diego Promise program. (Photo: SDCCD)

An educated citizenry, Thomas Jefferson once said, is vital for our survival as a free people. At the San Diego Community College District, the tuition-free San Diego Promise program not only provides access to a high-quality college education, but a path toward earning a degree that, on average, will yield an income $10,000 higher annually in California – or more than $400,000 over the course of a student’s working lifetime – than someone with just a high school diploma.

The San Diego Promise has served nearly 4,400 students since its inception as a pilot program in the fall of 2016 with an initial cohort of just 186 undergrads. Promise alumni have transferred to public and private universities throughout California and beyond, pursuing their dreams and expanding their possibilities. Others have launched successful careers. The program’s rapid growth demonstrates a need that the San Diego Community College District, its donors and its educational partners are committed to meeting.

The students it serves

The San Diego Promise is about leveling the playing field for students whose financial situation might have kept them from earning a degree and who have been historically underrepresented and marginalized at colleges and universities. According to a comprehensive new report by the San Diego Community College District’s Office of Institutional Research and Planning analyzing the San Diego Promise’s impact, Latino students comprise well over half of the program’s students, even though they make up less than 40 percent of all students in the district. San Diego Promise students are also more likely than their non-Promise peers to identify as first-generation college students and also are more likely to receive need-based financial aid and utilize Extended Opportunity Programs and Services (EOPS).

Students say the program makes them feel more directed, focused, supported and connected. Not surprisingly, they are more likely than their non-Promise peers to attempt and complete 12 or more units per term and earn a degree. In the first year of the program, for example, San Diego Promise students were far more likely to have a grade point average of 3.0 or above than their non-Promise peers and were less likely to drop a class or leave school, a trend that continued with students in the 2018-19 San Diego Promise cohort.

This program was not created in a vacuum; in the United States, more than 300 college Promise programs have been launched in 44 states. At a time when California is projected to face a shortfall of workers with some college education but less than a bachelor’s degree by 2025, and with the Federal Reserve Bank reporting a nearly incomprehensible $1.5 trillion in student debt nationwide, Promise programs will remain integral to growing and sustaining our economy.

More than just help with tuition

The San Diego Promise works because students are provided with wrap-around support, in addition to receiving textbook grants and having their tuition waved. All participants, for example, must develop an educational plan mapping a detailed pathway toward realizing their goals. They must meet with a counselor, submit a progress report, and complete a college readiness course. They must remain full-time students, maintain a minimum GPA of 2.0 and stay engaged on campus.

Students report feeling valued and connected through these activities – some possibly for the first time in their educational careers.

As the San Diego Promise continues to grow, the San Diego Community College District will increasingly rely on the generosity of community partners to help fund additional support for these deserving students.

About the Author

Constance M. Carroll
is chancellor of the San Diego Community College District.