By Greg Gillespie, Chancellor of Ventura County Community College District, is a guest contributor for the College Promise Campaign
The drive to make community college free is picking up speed here in California. Today, nearly 50 “College Promise” programs are delivering free tuition in every corner of the state. For thousands of hardworking people, that means a chance at a college education and a better life. It means attracting businesses with educated and trained workers, as well as encouraging families to lay down roots in communities that invest in the next generation. Here in Ventura, we’re especially proud of this progress because California’s free community college movement began in our backyard.
Ventura is a diverse city filled with small business owners, migrant workers, and military service members. Our community thrives because of working and middle-class families who are playing by the rules and striving to get ahead. Yet, too often, obstacles prevent our families from moving themselves and our community forward. Increasing college costs prevent many of our residents from accessing the education and skills needed to compete for good paying jobs. That’s why over a decade ago, the Ventura College Foundation launched California’s first free community college program—Ventura College Promise—which provides one year of free tuition to recent high school graduates enrolling at our campus.
For the last four years, I’ve been a proud supporter of this program while serving as Ventura College’s president, and I am delighted with how far we’ve come. Since its launch, Ventura College Promise has benefited over 12,000 students, including some of our most underserved residents. For example, the program’s Latino students and young men overall continue on with their education at twice the rate of their non-Promise peers. Likewise, African American students continue on at three and a half times the rate. Results like these demonstrate just how hard students are willing to work when we invest in them.
The impact of the Ventura College Promise is not limited to our community. Our local success has inspired new free community college programs up and down the coast. From San Luis Obispo down to Santa Barbara and Oxnard, we are fortunate to have collaborative neighbors borrowing our model, tailoring it to their community, and including additional services to benefit students. Although we serve different school districts and populations, we are friends and partners, motivating each other to provide a quality education for more students throughout our region.
But our work is far from finished. This year, I’ve moved into a new role overseeing all three of Ventura County’s community colleges. I’m proud to share three ambitious goals that will build a more prosperous community in the years ahead. First, we are doubling down on the Ventura College Promise by striving to add a second year of free tuition and support to our students. Second, because our region benefits from two local U.S. naval bases, we are launching the William & Helen Scarpino Veterans Promise to provide similar tuition assistance to our veterans and active duty military. By taking these steps, we will build a stronger Ventura for years to come, but there’s plenty more to do in our county and bigger goals to set still.
The third part of our plan is the boldest, but also the most important. While Ventura County is fortunate to have many distinct and vibrant cities, we are one community. That’s why all three of our colleges—Ventura, Oxnard, and Moorpark—are committed to building a county-wide Promise program, providing our students with free tuition regardless of where they call home. Wherever a hardworking student lives in the county, we will ensure they benefit from College Promise at our campuses.
I look forward to working with local leaders to fund and support my proposal. We need to make education as accessible to students as possible, and that means more than making it free. It means thoughtfully delivering education and support to students in ways that respond to how they actually live their lives while juggling work, long commutes, and family responsibilities.
Reaching these goals will take time and patience, but given Ventura College Promise’s achievements over the last decade, we know that the wait will pay off. And just as our early efforts in Ventura inspired a free community college movement across the state, our goal of building a county-wide, multi-campus program may well inspire similar models as well. Here in Ventura County, we’re proud to continue leading the way to a brighter future for all Californians.