San Diego Promise studnets
San Diego Promise students from City, Mesa and Miramar colleges. Courtesy San Diego Community College District

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 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 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.

Dr. Constance M. Carroll

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.

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.

Still, some challenges remain. When surveyed, four in 10 students said they had not heard of the San Diego Promise, and many seem to confuse it with a separate California College Promise Grant, which was formerly known as the state Board of Governors Fee Waiver. Several students said they want to develop closer connections to fellow Promise students and expressed a desire for program staff to organize additional structured activities and events. Some pointed out that the requirement to take 12 units can be a burden, as many participants are holding down a job or two, or are helping to take care of their family.

As the San Diego Promise continues to grow, the San Diego Community College District will need to increase its reliance on the generosity of community partners to help fund additional support for these students.

The San Diego Promise is a vital component in ongoing efforts — such as high school/college dual enrollment and an Early Commitment to College Program in conjunction with the San Diego Unified School District that cultivates a college-going culture in elementary school — aimed at improving the educational experience of students while supporting them in meeting their goals. Moreover, the San Diego Promise underscores the San Diego Community College District’s mission to provide accessible, high-quality, learning experiences and undergraduate education at an affordable price to meet the educational needs of the San Diego community and the state.

Enrollment for the San Diego Promise for fall 2020 freshmen begins Jan. 13. Graduating high school seniors are encouraged to learn more about the program and apply at

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