Alejandra Mendoza and Julian Littlehale, both 18, are two Dos Pueblos High School graduates enrolling in the Santa Barbara City College Promise program offered by the SBCC Foundation. (Brooke Holland / Noozhawk photo)

Hundreds of local high school graduates are taking advantage of the tuition-free Santa Barbara City College Promise program offered by the nonprofit SBCC Foundation, which pays for tuition and other enrollment fees, and two years of books and supplies.

Joaquin Villegas figured he’d join the military after graduating with the Dos Pueblos High School Class of 2017.

“I wasn’t going to go to college,” the 18-year-old told Noozhawk.

Upon discovering he couldn’t join, Villegas switched his path to college-bound and will take on the role as a first-generation college student in SBCC’s fall semester.

The kinesiology major said he feels the responsibility to help navigate his younger sister’s education path.

“I like the idea of staying local because I’m with my family,” Villegas said. “I want to be a role model.”

The program just had its first group of enrollees, and data show that 756 local students signed up, with 85 percent of them completing all the requirements and enrolled for the spring 2017 semester. The students carried an average of 13.5 units.

The nonprofit SBCC Foundation anticipates that the program will benefit more than 1,500 students for the fall semester, said Geoff Green, the foundation’s CEO.

No matter what the circumstances, getting into college and making it through successfully can be difficult, Dos Pueblos High alumna Alejandra Mendoza said.

A high school counselor told Mendoza about the SBCC Promise program, which was created to ensure all local high school graduates have access to high-quality, affordable college education.

She said she felt drawn to education growing up.

“Education was always important — since a lot of my family did not go to college,” Mendoza said. “Only a handful of my family members graduated college.”

The 18-year-old psychology and criminal justice major said the program helped ease the financial burden.

“I can focus on college and prepare, instead of stressing out about tuition and books,” she said. “I’m looking forward to helping my mother and siblings, and being more involved in the community and learning about the resources at SBCC.”

Julian Littlehale, another Dos Pueblos High graduate, also is utilizing the SBCC Promise program. He said he felt more stable and financial security because he is staying locally.

“Every time I tell someone about my plan, they say ‘I wish I were saving money,’” he said. “Any money saved can help.”

The 18-year-old plans to study biomedical engineering and hopes to transfer to UCLA or UC Santa Barbara after SBCC.

In an era when student debt tops $1.4 trillion in the United States, this program is more important than ever, Green said.

“For the first time in history, student debt is the second largest debt source in the U.S,” he said. “The data is clear that there are cost barriers to college, and that even the relatively low cost of community college (compared to UC, CSU, or private schools) is an obstacle — especially for students living in poverty.”

Two-thirds of SBCC’s new students come from poverty level and below, Green said.

SBCC’s district extends from Carpinteria to Gaviota, meaning every graduating high school senior in the area would be eligible to apply for the program.

The program supports students whether the individual wants to pursue a four-year or graduate degree, a trade or technical skill, an associate’s degree or a certificate program.

SBCC Foundation officials estimate if a student is paying all fees, the SBCC Promise will provide approximately $5,000 per student over the course of two years, Green said.

Program funding is raised privately, meaning 100 percent of it comes from donations, he added.

Click here for more information about eligibility requirements for the SBCC Promise program.

Noozhawk staff writer Brooke Holland can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

Brooke Holland, Noozhawk Staff Writer | @NoozhawkNews

Noozhawk staff writer Brooke Holland can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.