How Southwestern College is investing in its students—and the economy

In the midst of inflation and economic hardships, financial resources and a commitment to equity among students are two ways SWC is making a difference.

“We are really the only option for students who are trying to create access to higher education,” says Zaneta Encarnacion, chief of staff to the superintendent/president of the Southwestern Community College District. “All the students that have come in in the 50 years that we have been around are actually earning much more than they would have if they hadn’t been at Southwestern College.”

A bold statement? Perhaps. But the California community college—and the only public institution of higher education in southern San Diego County—serves over 500,000 students. “We play a critical role in accessing that pathway to higher education,” notes Encarnacion.

She also says SWC has been intentional about giving back to its students, even beyond the pandemic. A large number of its students were hit hard by the pandemic and continue to struggle as the economy suffers.

Supporting its students financially has “been a factor and a primary driving force for our college prior to inflation,” says Encarnacion. “We’ve been committed to this community from day one, and that includes understanding that our students have more challenges than maybe other students in the region. We live, I think, seven miles from the Mexico border, so we have a lot of cross-border students and bi-national students. We have students who are very place-based because of the economic structures of their families. As the economy improves, we will remain committed to supporting our students and the financial challenges that they will continue to face, even in a good economy.”

She also says that equity will always be important for SWC, and other schools should emulate the institution’s model for success. “We have a chancellor who really understands the work of equity,” says Encarnacion. “When we’re talking about meeting students where they’re at, we’re really talking about equity. All California community colleges are in this effort together.”

Encarnacion also spoke about the college’s role in supporting its students amid inflation. She says that the cost of living has been the biggest deterrent for students trying to earn a college degree. SWC helps students by providing them with a variety of financial resources.

“We have actually created a broad safety net for students,” says Encarnacion. “We have emergency grants for students to help them if they have unexpected expenses. We also opened a food kitchen in 2019 to make sure none of our students are without food. It’s also a pantry, so students can bring their food home—and that’s really important because a lot of our students will feed their children before they feed themselves.”

The impact the college has had on the economy and its students is profound, says Encarnacion. Southwestern conducted an economic impact analysis in the fall of 2021 to gather insight on how the university is contributing to the state.

“What that report showed us is that we contribute greatly, not just to the actual economy but also in long-term spending,” says Encarnacion.

Here is a breakdown of the findings:

  • Southwestern College contributed an annual total of $440 million.
  • College operations contributed $112.8 million.
  • Daily student spending contributed $13.1 million.
  • Construction spending contributed $7.8 million.
  • SWC alumni contributed $306.3 million.

In total, this contribution is equivalent to supporting 4,998 jobs.

Encarnacion says that the college’s next steps are to explore options for affordable housing for their students.

“We’re working right now with the state to do feasibility studies around student housing and how we might be able to incorporate them in each of our campuses,” says Encarnacion. “We have five campuses in the south county region. Each one is unique but they lack affordable housing.”

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Micah Ward
Micah Ward
Micah Ward is a University Business staff writer. He recently earned his master’s degree in Journalism at the University of Alabama. He spent his time during graduate school working on his master’s thesis. He’s also a self-taught guitarist who loves playing folk-style music.

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