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San Diego Community College Program Puts Elite Universities Within Reach

San Diego Community College Honors Program

Qualifying for a top-tier university can be difficult, but three community colleges have a way in.

With the cost of college tuition soaring, many students are looking for less expensive options for higher education. A growing number are finding the answer in the honors program offered by the San Diego Community College District.

All four campuses in the San Diego Community College District offer the honors program where students take a set of rigorous courses designed to seamlessly shepherd them into a four-year university. Students who have completed the program have been accepted at prestigious four-year universities, including UCLA, UC Berkeley and Stanford.

This year tuition for a University of California school was $12,192, while a California State University school's tuition was $5,472. In contrast, a year of classes at a community college costs $1,104.

Photo by Matthew Bowler

San Diego City College's honors coordinator Kelly Mayhew is pictured, March 3, 2015.

San Diego City College's honors coordinator Kelly Mayhew said the low cost makes the program accessible to a diverse and often disadvantaged student body.

“We are full of socioeconomically challenged people who have not always been well served by their schools,” Mayhew said.

Across the community college district, there are approximately 500 students enrolled in the honors program per semester. More than 70 percent of them are on track to transfer to a university like UC Berkeley or Loyola Marymount. The San Diego City College honors program is 51 percent Latino.

“We offer honors to many folks who don’t think of themselves as honors program students,” Mayhew said.

There are three ways the honors program gets its students. First, some students simply sign up for honors classes. Second, students are told they qualify for honors credit after taking the community college entrance exam. Third, bright students are directed into the program from regular classes by community college professors.

“One of the most effective ways and one of the most supportive ways is we have our entire faculty recommend students to the honors program,” Mayhew said.

Photo by Matthew Bowler

City College honors student Elvin Lantigua is pictured, March 3, 2015.

Elvin Lantigua found the honors program after he left the Marine Corps. He remembers coming to City College looking for a challenge.

“I didn’t want to skate through the college experience," Lantigua said. "I felt like I wanted to get the most out of it."

Students can take honors courses two ways. First, special arrangements can be made to augment the work in nearly every class, making each one into an honors class. Second, the honors program has a core set of classes specially designed to challenge students, called "Honors Core."

In the "Honors Core" program, multiple classes are taught together with each one complimenting the other. One of those core classes is an English class taught with a humanities class.

On one visit to the "Honors Core" humanities class, professor Jim Miller had Plato’s Allegory of the Cave on tap for students.

“You were a prisoner of your own ignorance, a prisoner in your mind,” Miller said, recounting the theme of Plato's allegory. “And then slowly liberating you, it’s gradual, it’s painful, and it completely upends your whole world when you go outside.”

Plato’s work is an allegory about the struggle for knowledge that is also metaphor for the classroom. With a grin, Miller acknowledges his course will demand much from his students.

UCLA hopeful Celeste Clerk said students want the bar set high.

“There is a trust that is earned with the professors once you sign the honor contract that you are not only willing to work hard, but that you are very interested in going in depth in the material,” Clerk said. “Your thinking and your reason are worth an honor."

Changing students' sense of self worth is part of the honors program’s mission, Mayhew said.

“We’re more concerned with how our students see themselves as being able to do honors, as opposed to being gatekeepers,” she said.

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