The skyrocketing cost of higher education is putting our nation at risk. For far too many, the rising cost of college — tuition, fees, living expenses and student loans — makes higher education seem out of reach. Today, many students are opting out of college altogether, fearing both the cost and prospect of taking out a mountain of student loan debt.
But a high school education is no longer enough to prepare our students for 21st-century jobs. Simply put, if we want to ensure our country has the best trained and educated workforce, we must make higher education more affordable so students can acquire the knowledge and training they need to get ahead.
Fortunately, there’s a solution, and it’s good for students, communities and businesses. It’s called the College Promise, a nationwide effort to make a community college education as universal, free and accessible as high school. Although this is a national movement, the action takes place at the state and local level. All across the country, communities are building programs to provide hardworking students with free tuition so they can complete post-secondary education, whether that’s an occupational certificate, an associate’s degree or credits to transfer to a four-year college or university.
There are now more than 190 programs in 40 states. Some are funded through donations from corporations and philanthropy; some via public dollars; and others employ a hybrid of both. Tennessee, Oregon and Minnesota have established statewide College Promise programs; Rhode Island and New York are considering their own models.
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Right here in San Luis Obispo County, we have our own program — the Cuesta Promise — which covers the cost for local high school graduates to attend their first year at Cuesta College. The program was created through philanthropy after the Cuesta College Foundation received a donation of more than $8 million from the Charles and Leeta Dovica Family Trust. The endowment pays for tuition, health fees, course materials and more.
The results are impressive. Since the program launched in 2013, we have seen big increases in the number of high school graduates starting college, especially among those historically underrepresented in higher education — Latino and first-generation students. This bodes well for students, families and local businesses; all benefit from a highly trained local workforce.
Now, we must expand the program to cover two full years, enabling students to afford completing the education they began. That’s why we are looking to raise $10 million so that residents in our community can access a full two years of outstanding education and training that is the hallmark of Cuesta College.
Why is this so important?
In recent decades, access to affordable community college education has been affected by plummeting state funding and the shift from need-based grants to student loans. All this comes at a time when affordable access to community college has never been more important. The Department of Labor now estimates that American businesses and employers are struggling to fill an estimated 5.6 million quality jobs because they can’t find enough trained workers.
Cuesta College can help meet this need. If we can train more of our students here in San Luis Obispo County for the jobs employers need to fill, we can attract and retain more businesses in our county. Businesses grow and succeed when nearby community colleges are resourced to meet local needs. We understand that where community colleges exist, businesses have a real partner in growing and diversifying their labor force. We know that when students are educated and trained, families stay in their communities and work for local businesses. Sometimes, they start new businesses themselves.
That’s why investing in Cuesta Promise is so important. We want students in our county to have better access to an outstanding college education. And we know that corporations are dependent upon the education ecosystem to provide the talent and innovation necessary to keep our businesses strong. If we raise the funds needed to ensure our local high school graduates can complete a Cuesta College education, we can build a seamless pipeline between schools and local industry.
We urge the expansion of Cuesta Promise and call upon our colleagues across the nation to join us in the effort to make community college education universal and affordable. The College Promise is good for students, communities, businesses and our country.
Cuesta College Superintendent/President Gil Stork has worked at the college for 50 years, first as a teacher and later as an administrator. He has been superintendent since 2010. Bill Swanson, an honored alumnus of Cuesta College (class of 1967), joined The Raytheon Co. in 1972 after graduating from Cal Poly with a bachelor’s degree in engineering. He retired as chairman and CEO in 2014.