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Cuesta, Hancock colleges entice local students with Promise programs 

Current Allan Hancock College student Kailia Villanueva has big dreams for her future.

"I see myself down the line as an entrepreneur, and I want to own a business," Villanueva said.

click to enlarge CREATING A CULTURE Students are encouraged to explore higher education with local Promise programs. - PHOTO COURTESY OF ALLAN HANCOCK COLLEGE
  • Photo Courtesy Of Allan Hancock College
  • CREATING A CULTURE Students are encouraged to explore higher education with local Promise programs.

Going to college was always part of that dream, but it wasn't until Allan Hancock College established the Hancock Promise in 2017 that Villanueva's dream became a reality. The program covers a student's tuition and enrollment fees for the first school year. The only requirement is that the student must graduate from high school (home-school or private school as well) within the college's service area.

"My family is not well off, and I've always wanted to continue my education," Villanueva said. "So with the Promise, I'm able to experience new things, and I'm able to push myself to achieve those goals that I've always had."

Cuesta College has had a one-year Promise program since 2013 and was able to start offering its students a second year fee-free (that includes $46 per unit and associated costs) in 2018-19.

According to the Regional Educational Laboratory West, a report released in 2016 stated that Cuesta College was one of 23 community colleges that launched a Promise program. Locally, it was the first program of its kind, but every community college's Promise program is different.

The first cohort of Hancock's Promise program students arrived on campus for the 2018-19 academic year, but the grant is only one part of making college accessible for students who haven't historically had that opportunity.

Nohemy Ornelas, vice president of student services, said the program creates a culture where higher education is accessible. She said a large part of the school's demographic is made up of first-generation, low-income, and underrepresented students.

"Their confidence levels are low, and maybe they haven't been exposed to knowing that there's a local community college here that's available for them," Ornelas said.

She said the program has four initiatives to help introduce the path to community college, which starts in fifth grade.

"We really wanted to begin to plant that seed early on, and we know that those ages are really when students begin to think about future career opportunities," she said.

The first initiative, Bulldog Bound, is aimed at prospective students in the fifth through eighth grades. Age-appropriate educational activities share the notion that college is possible and expose students to the college experience.

The second initiative, The Path to Promise, is for ninth through 12th graders. Students are introduced to a program that allows them to take college-credit courses on their high school campus. Ornelas said that during the Path to Promise, Hancock representatives can speak to students about transitioning to college.

The Hancock Promise is the third initiative. Students in this phase of the program must complete an online or in-person orientation, create an educational plan, and be full-time students. They are also required to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to maximize the amount of financial aid support that they can get to be successful.

The last initiative is the Extended Promise, which Ornelas said focuses on the outcome that students want from their education at Hancock—whether an associate degree, a certification, or transferring to a four-year university. She said the college has created workshops, counseling support, extended library hours, and tutoring hours so students have plenty of opportunities to attain their goals.

"What we've seen is our actual college-going rate for high school students is actually up to 40 percent, which we had not seen in the past," Ornelas said.

The college, she said, has also seen a 48 percent increase in enrollment of low-income students. Ornelas said she's expecting to have a larger group of students this coming academic school year.

Cuesta College President Jill Stearns said that with 926 students participating in this academic school year's Promise program, it's the highest number of students receiving the grant. Since its implementation, 3,880 students have received the Promise grant through Cuesta.

She said that based on the 2017-18 academic year, students who have taken advantage of the grant have a higher grade point average, by .438 percent. Students earn 2.1 more units than non-Promise students, so they're taking a larger course load; and they're 1.8 times more likely to continue going to classes from the fall of their freshman year to the fall of their sophomore year.

When Stearns joined the school in July of last year, she said she made it a point to speak with incoming students who were taking part in the Promise program. Overwhelmingly, Stearns said, she heard the Promise was enough to steer prospective students in the direction of going to community college.

"In some cases, the students were thinking of going away, and it helped them to make the choice to stay here, do their two years, and then transfer," she said. "And in some of the other cases, it made a difference of not going to college and going to college." Δ

Staff Writer Karen Garcia can be reached at kgarcia@newtimesslo.com.

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