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Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story

The following article was posted on September 20th, 2017, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 18, Issue 29 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 18, Issue 29

Start here, go anywhere? An expanding Allan Hancock College hopes to offer four-year degrees to North County students


To Jeremiah Hernandez, getting a four-year degree seemed just out of reach.

He was about to graduate from high school in Santa Maria, and his parents, despite their inability to financially support his future, had always pushed him toward the path of higher education.

“‘You’re a smart kid,’” Hernandez said his parents often told him. “‘You need to go to college. You need to do something better than what we’re doing.’”

In 2016, more than 1,000 Allan Hancock College students transferred to four-year universities, according to Hancock statistics. A majority of those transfers were to out-of-state schools.

But when Hernandez graduated from high school, he wasn’t left with many realistic ways to pursue a four-year degree. The closest schools offering baccalaureate degrees were, and still are, the UC Santa Barbara and Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, two schools notorious for high prices and low acceptance rates.

Hernandez, who wanted to stay close to Santa Maria for his family and the low cost of living, was at a loss for what to do. His parents didn’t go to college and had never been through the application process. They didn’t know about financial aid, registration, office hours, or scholarships. Neither did most of his other family members and, for that matter, neither did he.

When the stress of finding a nearby, affordable school became too much, Hernandez decided to pass on a four-year degree. He just wasn’t ready. Instead he chose to attend Allan Hancock College, where he could afford to take classes while working and living in his reasonably priced hometown.

Hernandez is like many residents of northern Santa Barbara County who choose to pursue two-year associate degrees simply because of the unaffordable tuition at most of the state’s four-year schools, and the high cost of living in the cities that host them. While many state schools are nearby, the closest ones are just far enough to make for a costly daily commute, leaving behind many potential college students who can’t afford tuition plus rent.

Hancock has made several recent attempts to bring accessible four-year degrees to North County residents with the help of the Santa Maria City Council, but the state Legislature has largely prevented those efforts. And for locals hoping to earn a bachelor’s degree, the closest universities aren’t always an attainable option.

“Not only are San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara two of the most expensive places to live,” Hernandez said, “they also have two of the most expensive public universities in California.”

Effort to expand

Concerned community members and several local businesses brought the issue of higher education, or the lack thereof, to the Santa Maria City Council’s attention recently, according to the city Assistant City Manager Jason Stilwell. Businesses, Stilwell said, have a high demand for workers with four-year degrees, and while a number of Santa Marians want those degrees, they have no way to get them in the valley.

“It’s important for us to keep our best and brightest students in the community, and most go away for college and find jobs elsewhere,” Stilwell said. “We want people to grow up here and stay if they choose. We see it as an important part of economic development that we have a trained workforce serving needs of local businesses.”

In June 2016, the City Council made higher education a priority. Promoting and supporting the development of a “four-year university degree program” in Santa Maria was listed as one of City Council’s primary goals in the 2016-18 budget.

Allan Hancock College was simultaneously on a mission to offer four-year programs, Stilwell said, and while the city is open to other ideas, a partnership between Hancock and the city seemed a natural progression.

“We’re in the [California State University Channel Islands] region, but that campus is 100 miles away, so we think they need more of a physical presence here,” Stilwell said. “Whether it’s out of Hancock or a satellite campus, we’d be open to either.”

Projected costs for 2017-18 academic years
Yearly tuition for full-time students:
Allan Hancock College: $1,104
UC Santa Barbara: $12,630
Cal Poly SLO: $9,432
CSU Channel Islands: $6,802

Yearly estimated off-campus cost of living:
Hancock: $13,293
UCSB: $7,128
Cal Poly: $13,116
Channel Islands: $14,502

Yearly on-campus housing costs:
UCSB: $14,778
Cal Poly: $13,116
Channel Islands: $16,954 (includes food)


For now, the city is working to support Hancock’s goal of offering a four-year program itself. But major roadblocks have come from state Legislature, Stilwell said, including Senate Bill 769, which was introduced in February as a way to help meet the growing need for an educated workforce.

The bill established a statewide baccalaureate degree pilot program in which more than 100 community colleges were able to apply to offer one baccalaureate program each. The proposed programs, according to the bill, had to meet a series of strict standards. Schools applying were not allowed to offer more than one baccalaureate program, and each school’s proposed program was to cater to unmet workforce needs in its community.

Applying schools could not propose programs already offered by any schools in the California State University or University of California systems.

Hancock College President and Superintendent Kevin Walthers, who has been working for years to bring baccalaureate degrees to Santa Maria, said Hancock was one of several community colleges that applied. Hancock, he said, wanted to offer a four-year degree in precision agriculture, which would have taught irrigation techniques that allow field managers to analyze amounts of water and fertilizer present in crops. The program would have involved chemistry, plant science, and satellite technology.

“It was about building a sustainable program that helped farmers maximize resources as well,” Walthers said.

Fifteen schools and their proposed programs were chosen, but Hancock didn’t make the cut. It was unfortunate, Walthers said, but the loss was followed by talk of expanding the bill to schools, like Hancock, that have a greater need for accessible four-year degrees.

Walthers said he hoped legislators would allow community colleges more than 75 miles away from a California State University to offer degrees similar to those at state schools. While Cal Poly SLO is a CSU school, Walthers said that its specific focus, impacted enrollment, and the cost of attending are all barriers for locals looking for a four-year degree. The next closest CSU option is Channel Islands, but its campus is 111 miles from Santa Maria.

There are only four community colleges in California farther than Hancock from a state university, Walthers said, including Lassen College, Cerro Coso Community College, and Feather River College. Those colleges are much smaller and serve fewer people than Hancock, he explained.

“The real concern here is that there’s not a larger population in the state than what we have,” Walthers said. “There is no place else in the state with a population of our size that doesn’t have access to California State Universities through a campus or a center. So our drive is to provide baccalaureate opportunities to our community.”

Students kicked off the semester on Sept. 14 at Lompoc Valley Center’s Bulldog Bow-wow. Allan Hancock College has centers in Lompoc, Santa Ynez, and on the Vandenberg Air Force Base, where students can attend classes and take advantage of other student services.

Walthers said Senate Bill 769 has not been expanded, and Hancock has begun to look into other options. Possible solutions are brewing between administrators at Hancock, Cal Poly, and CSU Channel Islands, Walthers said, but it’s still too early to tell what a four-year degree offered by those schools on Hancock’s campus would look like.

“We actually seem to be making good progress with that, but I’d like to see a little more urgency behind it because this community doesn’t have access,” Walthers said. “Higher education moves slow, and California higher education moves slower.”

Walthers said if the situation hasn’t advanced significantly by the end of this school year, administrators will need to reassess ways to offer a four-year program to the community. But Walthers said Hancock hasn’t lost sight of its priority mission to offer the community two-year degrees. Even without a four-year program, Hancock is improving and expanding.

Several new buildings have recently gone up at Hancock’s main campus in Santa Maria thanks to Measure I funding, and the college has developed centers all over North County, including a new location in Santa Ynez and one at Vandenberg Air Force Base. In August, Hancock unveiled its Promise Program, which will give local high school graduates a free year of tuition at Hancock. The program, Walthers said, will work toward creating a college-going culture in North County by eliminating the financial barriers to higher education that many families face.

A similar program could be offered by the state through Assembly Bill 19, passed by a group of bipartisan senators on Sept. 13. The bill, which would allow community colleges to waive first-year tuition fees for thousands of full-time students, is awaiting approval from Gov. Jerry Brown.

But Walthers said he believes many North County residents would already have four-year degrees if his college offered them. 

College compromise

While many Hancock graduates want to pursue four-year degrees, few are lucky enough to be accepted to Cal Poly. Of the 1,282 former Hancock students that transferred to higher institutions in the 2015-16 academic year, 454 went to CSUs, but most of those students relocate for school, Walthers said.

Cal Poly is a competitive institution, and most Hancock graduates who want four-year degrees transfer to CSU Bakersfield or Channel Islands, he explained, and both schools are roughly 100 miles away.

“That’s problematic for a lot of our community because their families rely on them,” Walthers said. “They might have younger siblings who rely on them or parents they have to care for or help pay the rent. To live on the Central Coast, a family of four needs to make $56,000 a year just to get the basics.”

Hancock’s campus has hosted several recent construction projects. New buildings have been erected and old ones have been improved. President Kevin Walthers said many of the buildings hadn’t been renovated since the ’70s.

That was the case for Hernandez, who completed his associate degree only to be faced with the same conundrum as 10 years before. Hernandez knew he wanted his four-year degree, but he had already established a life in Santa Maria. By this time, his young daughter’s welfare was his responsibility as well. He was left with the same options he had immediately following high school: transfer or commute.

Hernandez, now 29, chose both. It’s his last year in ethnic studies and sociology at Cal Poly SLO. His bachelor’s degree is finally coming to an end, but the road to graduation wasn’t easy.

Hernandez said his tuition at Cal Poly is paid for through financial aid and grants—help he didn’t know how to get right after high school—but he drives more than 30 miles from his home in Santa Maria to the university each day.

“I felt it was too big of a burden to leave and get my four-year degree,” Hernandez said, adding that he is a single parent. “I’m going to take care of my family. It’s about being able to make sure the rent is paid, there’s food in our stomachs, we’ve got clothes on our backs, and we can still go out and do the other things we have to do.”

If Hancock offered a four-year degree, Hernandez said he surely would have taken advantage of the opportunity before transferring to Cal Poly. He might have even pursued his bachelor’s immediately after high school.

A lot of students at Hancock are like Hernandez.

David Rude, a 28-year-old music student said he stayed in Santa Maria to live with his family and avoid costly rent. He worked all through college, paid his tuition, and received his associate degree in music in December 2016. Rude said he’d like to get his bachelor’s, but that transferring, moving, and paying for tuition and rent would be more work than a degree is worth.

Chinenye Oriji, 19, works in Hancock’s University Transfer Center. She lives with her family in Santa Maria and majors in nursing. She attended Hancock because it’s affordable, and said she’s seen a lot of students leave Hancock only to find that they can’t bear the financial burden of most other colleges.

Jasmine Rodriguez-Ortega, director of student advocacy for Hancock’s Associated Student Body Government, said a lot of students aren’t financially ready to attend four-year schools right out of high school. Hancock helps prepare students for that, she said. It helped her.

Political science major David Hurbide, 25, helps his mother pay rent. He also works in Hancock’s University Transfer Center and hopes to transfer to a four-year school himself next fall. Right now, he’s applying for schools based solely on the cost of tuition and living. He said he’ll likely end up taking the bus to Cal Poly every day. If Hancock had a four-year program, Hurbide said he would get his bachelor’s there.

“It would be really nice if this became a bigger school,” Hurbide said. “I want to see Santa Maria grow.” 

Battling the deficit 

While Hancock’s administration, faculty, and students mostly agree that they’d like to see the degree options offered at the college expand, there is one problem: The state’s budget isn’t growing.

Mike Uhlenkamp, spokesperson for the California State University Chancellor’s Office, said state colleges are already competing with each other and other state institutions for limited resources and funding. If all California community colleges were to offer the same four-year degrees as California State Universities, there would only be more competition among already underfunded schools.

Student Jasmine Rodriguez-Ortega, 19, said Hancock’s campus would need to expand if it were to offer four-year degrees. “It would help a lot with the community and the city of Santa Maria if Hancock were to expand its campus,” she said. “I honestly feel like more students would want to attend Allan Hancock College.”

Uhlenkamp said it would be inefficient to take funding from colleges that are already successfully providing four-year degrees just so that neighboring colleges could offer those same degrees.

“If community colleges are going to offer degrees in a field we typically don’t offer programs in, it won’t be an issue,” Uhlenkamp said.

Still, Uhlenkamp said California State Universities are aware of and working to battle California’s growing deficit of college educated people. The Public Policy Institute of California projects that by 2025, California will be more than 1 million baccalaureate degrees short of meeting economic productivity demands.

California State Universities are taking the deficit seriously, Uhlenkamp said. State schools have put a graduation initiative into action, he explained, which includes removing administrative barriers and other outdated practices in an effort to double four-year graduation rates. But offering those degrees at community colleges might not be the right answer.

“We have been underfunded for a number of years,” Uhlenkamp said. “We’re all underfunded. So does it really make sense?”

To students like Hernandez, it does.

Hernandez said residents of Santa Maria come from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds, many of which are low-income. More than 20 percent of Santa Maria’s population lives below the poverty level, according to Hancock statistics. If community members really want Santa Maria’s economy to improve and violence to decline, Hernandez said, its residents should support a local four-year degree program.

“If they were to open that four-year program here, that would open up that accessibility,” Hernandez said. “Something like this would be huge. It’d be an opportunity to make our community better.”

Staff Writer Kasey Bubnash can be reached at

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