It All Starts with a Promise

Community partnerships providing hope for California students

In a time of ubiquitous political and ideological strife, it’s rare to find an issue on which virtually everyone can agree.

But that’s exactly what Santa Barbara City College Foundation CEO Geoff Green found when he pitched the SBCC Promise to business and policy leaders in his community.

image of male and female student holding school supplies outside

“I made calls, had individual conversations with 120 community leaders. These were honest, blunt conversations,” says Green, whose foundation began laying the groundwork for the Promise in 2015. “The final question was: ‘If we can figure this out, would you be a public advocate?’ – we got a 100% ‘Yes’ rate.

“At that point, we knew… conservative, liberal… this is something that would reach across.”

As of Spring 2017, Santa Barbara City College’s Promise initiative is one of 55 active or announced partnerships in California, with new colleges making the commitment every year. While each institution has developed a unique conception and implementation, the Promise typically involves a commitment to providing support (both financial and nonfinancial), often including a scholarship component.

For each participating institution, the goal remains the same: to provide greater access and faster, more efficient outcomes for California students – especially those with challenging financial or social situations.

“At first I thought there was a catch, I thought we had to do something out of the ordinary to become part of this "promise," says SBCC student Mike Sanchez, who credits the Promise for giving his academic career a direction. “The more I started to learn about the promise, the more I wanted to become involved.”

The Promise initiative’s roots in California start with Ventura College, which launched the VC Promise during the 2005-06 school year. Inspired by the pioneering work of the Kalamazoo Promise, Ventura College committed to covering the first year or tuition for 1,000 qualifying students.

“Because of the longevity of the program, we have been able to study the educational achievements of our Promise students,” says Ventura College’s Jaimee Hanna, who reports huge successes in the latest generation of the VC Promise. “[They’re] two times more likely to get a degree or certificate... they take 25% more credits…

“The VC Promise jump-started these students’ higher-education goals.”
The California Promise movement is unique in that it empowers each institution to develop and evolve its own version of the Promise, from funding to implementation. This independence entails a large amount of coordination and commitment on the part of the partners involved, including K-12 systems, four-year institutions, cities, communities, private donors, and more.

“Their support is critical to our success,” says Jack Beresford, Director of Communications for the San Diego Community College District, which launched the San Diego Promise in fall 2016. “We are fortunate to have the support of many generous individuals who deeply believe in the power of a college education to change lives.”

image of students in front of folsom lake college

Folsom Lake College found a willing partner in the City of Rancho Cordova, which had passed a half-cent sales tax increase to support local priorities, including access to higher education pathways. This funding led to the successful implementation of the Folsom Lake College/Rancho Cordova College Promise, which is currently providing fee-free access for 153 students in the inaugural 2016/17 class. Since securing the initial funding in May 2016, the FLC/RC Promise has received additional financial commitments from local businesses, and continues to seek partnerships with feeder schools and local employers.

“The program wouldn’t be possible without the partnership Folsom Lake College has with the city of Rancho Cordova,” says Dean of Instruction Brian Robinson. “Ultimately, we would like to see this program become a cornerstone in our efforts to help encourage a college-going culture among Rancho Cordova students.” 

For some colleges, that partnership is more complex. In 2011, Santa Ana College Vice President of Student Services Sara Lundquist led an effort to bring not only the school district on board with the Santa Ana College Promise, but local universities and parallel academic outreach programs, as well. Now in its sixth year, the Santa Ana College Promise has served more than 2700 students, with 1200 new Promise students beginning this summer.

“The response was very positive in the community,” says Santa Ana College Transfer Director Martha Vargas. “The partnerships [are] most critical to the growth and high demand for this program.”

That appreciation for the cooperative spirit of Promise stakeholders is shared by Green, who says the SBCC Promise was similarly dependent on the teamwork of community members -- from private donors to community high schools, school districts, business and cultural organizations, and more.

“A big part of it was the college and district being so willing to jump into these partnerships,” he says.  “They’ve been heroes all the way along.”
With more than a decade of success stories paving the way, California colleges with younger Promise programs are receiving not only inspiration from their pioneering peers, but hard results and recommendations, as well.

image of students holding letters that spell promise