Cuesta College is giving SLO County high school grads a full degree for free

Cougie the Cougar poses with students before the May 2016 Cuesta College graduation.
Cougie the Cougar poses with students before the May 2016 Cuesta College graduation.

San Luis Obispo County high school graduates can now attend Cuesta College for two years for free, the community college's outgoing president announced Thursday morning.

Since 2013, the Promise Scholarship program has provided students with one free year of education at Cuesta College, with all tuition and fees covered. President Gil Stork said that year was intended to open doors for students who might otherwise not seek out higher education.

"No strings attached. ... Just come as you are and we'll take care of you," he said.

With the expansion of the scholarship to two years, San Luis Obispo County high school graduates — beginning with the Class of 2018 — can now have two years of college paid for. The only requirement for the second year of funding is a 2.0 GPA and the completion of at least 50 percent of college credits taken.

Gil Stork Promise Scholarship announcement
Outgoing Cuesta College President Gil Stork announces the expansion of the school's Promise Scholarship to cover a second year of schooling on June 14, 2018. Cuesta College

Stork, who retires at the end of June, called the Promise Scholarship's second year "the last thing on my bucket list."

Inspired by a similar initiative in Ventura County, the initial scholarship was funded by an $8 million endowment from Charles and Leeta Dovica of Morro Bay.

The second year is made possible by a variety of factors, Stork said, including donations from the Harold Miossi Charitable Trust, PG&E, Dr. Grace Crittenden, Rick and Jill Stollmeyer and the estates of Mary Schwartz and Laura Coats.

But the final thing that made the second year possible, Stork said, was the passage of Assembly Bill 19, which will fund the tuition of first-time, full-time community college students across the state. That freed up enough money from the Dovicas' endowment to fund the second year, Stork said.

"Sometimes, special things happen in Sacramento," he said.

Anna Betts and Aimee LaRue
San Luis Obispo High School graduate Anna Betts, right, poses with her mother, Aimee LaRue. Betts will be one of the first students to benefit from the newly expanded Cuesta College Promise Scholarship. Cuesta College

All San Luis Obispo County high school graduates are eligible for the Promise Scholarship, provided they finish the application process by Aug. 1.

One of those students, Anna Betts, was on hand for Thursday's announcement along with her mother, Aimee LaRue.

Betts, who graduated from San Luis Obispo High School on June 8, said she was leaning toward attending Humboldt State University but decided on Cuesta College when she learned of the planned announcement a few days ago.

"I told her it was her decision," LaRue said. "But I was thrilled she chose Cuesta."

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By choosing Cuesta College, which has campuses in San Luis Obispo and Paso Robles, Betts can live at home for another two years —saving her mother the cost of housing and other expenses that would come from going to school in Arcata.

"That $50,000 is substantial," LaRue said.

Betts said she is looking forward to going to school in the fall, and taking economics classes. "I'm really excited to meet new people," she said.

Once she finishes her core curriculum at Cuesta College, Betts said she hopes to attend UC Santa Cruz.

Stork acknowledged that the Promise Scholarship won't eliminate expenses for students; there are still the costs of textbooks, transportation, housing and, for some, childcare, to consider. But the college president said he hoped the program would significantly reduce the financial burden on students.

Many students today accumulate mountains of debt by the time they graduate, Stork said.

"This is all about removing that debt," he said.

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Andrew Sheeler: 805-781-7934, @andrewsheeler