Free haircuts for filing a FAFSA

San Diego City College offers free haircuts to students who complete a FAFSA and a few other requirements. It’s part of a strategy to encourage men of color to access services such as counseling and financial aid. (Photo: San Diego City College)

Talk about being on the cutting edge of student services outreach.

San Diego City College is breaking the mold via Fresh Cutz, a recently opened, on-campus barbershop that provides free haircuts – with a catch: to get a free cut from a professional barber, students must show they’ve filed a FAFSA form, are enrolled in at least one class and have mapped out even the most basic of educational plans.

“The strategy here is to get our students, particularly men of color, connected with our resources,” said Vice President of Student Services Marciano Perez, Jr., who noted that City College’s men of color are especially not well represented in accessing services such as counseling and financial aid.

Barbershops have always been a place for men of color to hang out, vibrant community hubs where folks from all socioeconomic backgrounds can gather to socialize, organize and discuss the latest, from family to politics and sports.

“We asked ourselves ‘What would it take to create that same vibe, that same opportunity, on our campus?’” said Ricky Shabazz, the president of a campus where 35% of those enrolled are first-generation college students, nearly half – 47% – have annual incomes of less than $27,000, 35% are earning less than $15,000 annually, and more than 75% are students of color.

Acting on an idea

It was shortly after Shabazz and Perez were returning from getting haircuts at off-campus barbershops when the ‘aha moment’ struck: offering free, professional haircuts to get more men of color to file or update an education plan and complete a FAFSA form to tap into financial aid programs such as the Student Success Completion Grant, Pell grants and the San Diego Promise – all while creating a safe space to build community and a greater sense of acceptance on a campus where “You Belong” is more than a motto.

After months of planning and an investment of less than $30,000 in student equity funds, Fresh Cutz held its grand opening on April 23. Xavier Vasquez, a single father of two sons, 11 and 8, said he was motivated by the free barbecued sausages and brisket with a side of mashed potatoes. Now, he’s sold. He’s been back for free haircuts twice.

“Haircuts are expensive,” said Vasquez, a 30-year-old returning student studying business with an eye on transferring to San Diego State University for a bachelor’s degree in marketing. “If all you have to do is fill out a FAFSA form and make an educational plan to get free haircuts throughout the semester, that’s going to motivate a lot of people, which is going to help them stay in college. It’s a great idea.”

A comfortable setting

Fresh Cutz sits on the ground floor of a building that once housed a manufacturing and technology incubator that’s been repurposed into an expansive student services hub that also includes Knights’ Table Food Pantry and Knights Threads & Things, the latter of which provides new and gently used clothing appropriate for formal interviews.

Murals painted by professional artists in San Diego and Los Angeles adorn the walls. Quality barber chairs and reception seating abound, along with mirrors, shelving and moveable storage. All of the shop’s barbers are area professionals who undergo an orientation and are paid $50 per customer.

Students book haircuts online and are asked to bring proof of completing their FAFSA to their first appointment. Fresh Cutz’s first customer was a housing-insecure military veteran who had not been to a barber in months but was preparing for an upcoming job interview and needed to look his finest. He arrived at Fresh Cutz unsure of who he was. He left a new man and wrote to Perez saying that for the first time in a long time, he felt valued.

Students and barbers chat at Fresh Cutz. (Photo: San Diego City College)

“A barbershop is more than just a place to get your haircut; it’s a place for conversation, dialogue, camaraderie,” Perez said. “We wanted to create a space that would attract students to come spend 45 minutes not only getting a haircut, but to learn more about the wide array of student services we have here at City. This is a safe space where the barbers look like our students, have had experiences like our students, and many of whom went to City like our students. All of them can relate to our students.”

Stephen Williams, 35, owns two barbershops in the region and was impressed when he first stepped on the City College campus.

“I had never been on this campus before, and right away, you get the sense that they really care about their students,” he said. “It’s been a rewarding experience providing this kind of service. We’ve had people thank us, pray for us, cry with us.”

Looking to expand

City College is considering expanding services to cover children of students. Counselors will also be stationed at the shop. Perez also hopes to collaborate with the college’s nursing program to provide blood pressure checks and basic health screenings while students are waiting for their cuts.

Fresh Cutz would be following a path blazed by the Black Barbershop Health Outreach Program, whose mission is to address health disparities among African American men while they’re visiting barber shops. Since its inception in 2006, the program has screened more than 30,000 men for diabetes and high blood pressure, and has inspired other programs around the world.

“This is going to be a trend across the country,” said Shabazz. “Colleges are searching for ways to improve retention rates among students of color. This is one way we can do that.”

Said Franceska Vaughan, 21, a Fresh Cutz barber who also works at Studio 1904, a short walk from the downtown campus: “It’s really less about the haircuts and more about taking care of people.”

About the Author

David Ogul
David Ogul is a San Diego-based freelance writer focusing on California’s community colleges.
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