Herbie Smith Describes Fantastic San Marcos Promise Program

Herbie Smith

The June meeting of the Lake San Marcos Democratic Club featured Herbie Smith, Executive Director of the San Marcos PACE Promise program, who gave his presentation “Building a Community Vision for Higher Education.” What we discovered through his talk is that this program is now far beyond a “vision”; in fact it actively provides a means to mentor and motivate any San Marcos High School student. In exchange these students are guaranteed admission to Cal State University San Marcos.

Why is this important? We learned how impactful the opportunities of the program can be through Herbie’s own personal story of a very difficult struggle before becoming the first person in his family to attain a college degree.

Herbie learned that you need to find your passion to make it into a career, then acquire the skills necessary to succeed with it. And that is the attitude that made him the perfect fit to lead the San Marcos PACE Promise Program.

In 2007 the San Marcos Unified School District received a $6 million grant from the Leichtag Foundation to fund scholarship support. The purpose was to increase first-generation college graduates like Herbie by giving them a monetary incentive.

It is a “need-blind” program; any San Marcos high school student can apply if they meet four “benchmarks”: 1) must attend all four years of high school at either San Marcos high school; 2) must complete college prep coursework while in high school with a minimum GPA of 2.0; 3) demonstrate college readiness and 4) must complete and submit the free Federal application for student aid even if aid is not needed. If all 4 requirements are met the student is guaranteed admission to CSUSM and will receive a $4,000 scholarship once enrolled.

The program, with the first PACE students enrolling in 2009, is already showing remarkable outcomes. Since that time over 370 scholarships totaling more than $1 million have been granted. Students who are part of the PACE program are continuing to re-enroll each subsequent college year at a better rate than either non-PACE students or the overall CSUSM average. This shows that PACE students are more likely to succeed. As a result, CSUSM is pushing to expand the program because they are getting “the best.” In addition to the guaranteed admission and financial help of the PACE program, CSUSM also provides PACE program students with early enrollment, priority registration for classes and internship opportunities. Overall there is a 23% higher retention rate and a 10% higher four-year graduation rate by PACE students.

Because of the program’s early success it’s being expanded. What’s clear is that in today’s economy and job market, not all students want to, need to or are able to attend a full 4 year college. So why constrain the program to just one pathway? Upon high school graduation, 36% of San Marcos high graduates attend Palomar or Mira Costa community colleges. 29% of the graduates opt to do nothing and thus one third of the graduates can’t really contribute to the economy.

In looking at the local job market, 1 in 10 jobs require a graduate degree, 2 in 10 require a Bachelor degree, while 7 out of 10 jobs only require a certificate or vocational training. Herbie said the goal of expanding the program is to “prepare students for an opportunity to compete in new middle-class economics” or prepare them for “gray collar” jobs. Today there is a wide gap between what degrees people get and the job skills needed. Given the high cost of college today and the huge amount of student debt incurred, it no longer makes sense to pursue a degree that does not prepare you for a real job. PACE Promise wants to close that gap to ensure students can graduate from a variety of programs that immediately provide relevant skills for the current job market.

Therefore the San Marcos school district and the Leichtag Foundation have agreed to use the remaining $4.5 million grant money to restructure school vocational programs so they train for today’s jobs. They also want to help students decide what really interest them before choosing a study path. As Herbie explained, “Culinary arts aren’t where the jobs are. In our area today, for example, we are science and biotech heavy and we need to re-think this.”

PACE Promise will continue to increase opportunities and relevance for today’s high school students, and they are doing it without using public money. Through partnerships with private foundations they plan to continue “Investing in human capital and expecting positive impacts.”  As Herbie said in closing, “Promise puts teeth behind making North County the educational hub it can be.”

For more information on the program, please see http://www.thesanmarcospromise.org.