Graduating community college students. Photo courtesy San Diego Community College District
Graduating community college students. Photo courtesy San Diego Community College District

By Bernie Rhinerson

This fall, tens of thousands of college students will head back to class at our local community colleges and universities seeking job skills and education to prepare for successful careers. Unfortunately, the high costs of college will force many students to drop out before they ever attain a degree. In addition to the costs of tuition and books, students face many challenges to stay in school. Recent studies have revealed that a growing number of students are homeless and go to school hungry.

A study released this summer showed that 1 of every 10 students at California State Universities are homeless and about 1 in 5 students face food insecurities. Similar findings were reached by a University of Wisconsin nationwide study of community college students. In her new book, “Paying the Price,” Temple University Professor Sara Goldrick Rab highlights how the escalating cost of college negatively impacts low-income students chasing the American dream of a good education.

Fortunately, California offers the most affordable community colleges in the nation with tuition currently at $46 per credit. California also offers a tuition waiver program for low-income students that provides free tuition to about 60 percent of the students attending our local community colleges. But the typical community college student faces many other financial pressures that are big obstacles to attending school full time and completing degree and certificate programs. Community college students in our state also have more barriers to financial aid, often making the full cost of attending a community college even higher than California’s state universities.

Bernie Rhinerson

Faced with the need to work full time to pay for housing, textbooks and to support their families, many community college students can still only attend part time and many never complete degrees or take years to reach that goal. To help our students overcome these challenges, the San Diego Community College District has created the San Diego Promise, a pilot program for 2016-17 school year that will give 200 students textbook and access grants in addition to their financial aid.

Students selected for this program must take at least 12 units each semester toward a degree or technical certificate program. That will get these 200 students started toward a higher education degree that can change their lives, since we know that students who complete an associate degree are expected to earn an additional $200,000 or more in their lifetime compared to those with only a high school education.

The San Diego Promise is part of a national movement, now in more than 130 communities, that seeks to change our expectations as a society about public education. The promise of free community college clearly says to every student that higher education degrees and workforce training are expected and essential for success and happiness in today’s competitive global workplace. By promising every student in San Diego that they can attend one of our local community colleges for free and that we believe they will succeed, more of our students will begin to believe in themselves and begin to work toward a better future that includes higher education.

More than 100 years ago our country made high schools free and expected for all. The College Promise movement will update that expectation to fit the educational needs of today’s workforce. The United States used to be No. 1 in the world in the number of citizens with college degrees. Today, we rank No. 12. To remain competitive in the global economy we need to up our game and get back to No. 1.

To change student expectations and to reach that goal, the San Diego Community College Foundation has funded the San Diego Promise for its first year. The next step will be to expand the San Diego Promise to serve every deserving student graduating from the San Diego Unified School District. Making our community colleges free for all deserving students means that we will will need to raise about $3 million in funding each year or create an endowment of about $30 million to sustain the program.

That is the challenge facing us, San Diego. Can we support a promise to every high school graduate in our city that they can attend one of our local community colleges for free, if they attend full time and make progress toward a degree? Can we change our expectations for all young students to let them know we believe in them and expect that they will succeed as full-time college students?

The board of the San Diego Community College District has accepted this challenge and we are inviting others to join us. We are exploring funding options that can generate revenue that could be dedicated to the San Diego Promise. We hope to explore partnerships with the San Diego Unified leadership, the City of San Diego and others to support this effort. And we will be reaching out to private donors who want to use their philanthropy to truly have an impact on students and our communities by expanding access to higher education.

In the months ahead, we will be evaluating the pilot year of the San Diego Promise and continuing our work to develop a long-term funding plan. To learn more about the San Diego Promise and to contribute to affordable college access for Promise students, visit our website at

Bernie Rhinerson is a public education advocate and trustee of the San Diego Community College District.

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