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SAN ANTONIO – For years, Keira Gilmore had her heart set on going to Texas A&M University. In high school, she was accepted and started mapping out her future. But the potential cost of school caused arguments between her and her parents, then her fiancé broke up with her abruptly, and her mother, who was already pregnant, got sick.

Fighting depression and needing to help out at home with siblings, Gilmore realized she couldn’t move three hours away to Texas A&M.

When Robert Garza was a senior in high school two years ago, he didn’t know what he wanted for himself. He was considering college or getting a job in construction. With money tight, his father frequently hinted he should look for whatever scholarships he could find.

For Gilmore and Garza, the solution to their problems was the same: free tuition at one of five San Antonio community colleges, provided by a new program called Alamo Promise. Both are not only on track to graduate, but are working toward definite career goals. Gilmore boasts a 4.0 grade-point average as a political science major at Northwest Vista College and hopes to become a lawyer. Garza is on schedule to earn a welding certificate at St. Philip’s College that would qualify him for a lucrative job working on an oil field.

Similar “promise” programs that pay for local high school students’ tuition have multiplied throughout the country. There are more than 400 such programs nationwide, with 10 in Texas alone, according to the University of Pennsylvania’s database.

But Alamo Promise students get more than free tuition. The five participating colleges, known as the Alamo Colleges District and serving more than 68,000 students, also provide a wide array of services to all students, from low-cost healthcare to food pantries at each campus to several daycare programs that can cost parents as little as $10 a week. An emergency financial aid program can help students pay for car repairs, rent, or medical needs if they qualify.

And although many of the Promise students would qualify for enough financial aid to attend college for free without this program, figuring out how to complete all the requirements can be daunting. The process “is complicated for students to understand,” said Laura Perna, a higher education expert and the vice provost for faculty at the University of Pennsylvania. “This is a clear message with no fine print.”

That simple offer and the program’s additional support services have been especially important in the wake of the pandemic. And they seem to be driving more first-generation and lower-income students to higher education.

Related: Mandatory advising looks more like social work as colleges try to meet student needs

The five Alamo colleges’ overall enrollment fell about 5.5 percent from fall 2020 to fall 2021, but the enrollment from the 25 high schools in the Promise program has vaulted 17 percent, said Chancellor Mike Flores.

For the fall semester of the program’s second year, the five Alamo colleges admitted 2,423 students, with 87 percent of them Hispanic and 6 percent African-American. Alamo Promise students can be either full-time or part-time; in fall 2021, 45 percent of these students reported that they have jobs in addition to going to school.

The five schools that comprise the Alamo Colleges District have gotten millions of dollars in support from San Antonio and from private donors. Last year, the Aspen Institute named San Antonio College the best community college in the country. Credit: Wayne D’Orio for The Hechinger Report

Making this program work in San Antonio, the country’s seventh-largest city, could be instructive for many other cities. While San Antonio is one of the fastest growing economic regions in the U.S., only about half of its high school seniors go on to college, and just 34 percent earn a degree. With 65 percent of jobs nationwide requiring credentials beyond high school, it’s easy to understand why the area faces a shortfall of highly skilled workers.

It’s a challenge for every urban area in the country to produce a sustainable pipeline of workers for today’s jobs, said Ron Nirenberg, the city’s mayor. He hopes the college Promise program will help the city chip away at its IT and healthcare worker needs, he said.

“When we first started planning the Alamo Promise program, we called it our moonshot for ending cycles of generational poverty that have been in San Antonio for decades,” Nirenberg said. “We have to bust some myths about what higher education is all about. If you want to work in a job that pays a living wage, you are going to have to have some kind of postsecondary credential.”

But the getting that credential can be costly. “I think finances are front and center for a lot of folks in our community,” Flores said. By assuring potential students and their families that they can achieve a degree for free, the program “reaches those students who, by and large, would have opted to go directly to work.”

That was definitely the case for Garza, now 19. “It saved me like six years of working and saving money” to pay for college.

“When I told my mom about Alamo Promise, she just started crying,” said Gilmore, also 19.  “She was so relieved.”

College promise programs offer benefits like this food pantry for Alamo students.
As part of its extensive support system for students, Alamo has expanded the idea of food pantries, offering both a grab-and-go spot where students can pick up quick snacks and drinks and a larger room that features toiletries, baby diapers and even pet food. Credit: Wayne D’Orio for The Hechinger Report

Alamo Promise’s guidelines are relatively simple. The five community colleges selected 25 city high schools where the majority of students have not gone on to postsecondary education and more than half are economically disadvantaged. Alamo Promise offers graduates three years of fully paid tuition and fees, after students apply for federal financial aid. This program is known as a last-dollar scholarship because it pays whatever costs remain after financial aid. The program has no income limits for participants.

In the first year, Alamo Promise ended up paying a little more than $2,000 per year for each student; full-time tuition for in-state residents is $3,112. All told, the schools put $1.87 million toward Alamo Promise in fiscal year 2021; that’s less than 1 percent of the consortium’s overall $387 million budget. The Promise program pays only for students’ tuition and fees; the other services available to students, including health care, daycare, and more, are available to all Alamo students and are paid out of the schools’ general budget.

For next fall, the program plans to expand to 47 schools, said Stephanie Vasquez, Alamo Promise’s chief program officer.

Related: A surprising reason keeping students from finishing college: A lack of transportation 

When the program launched in the pre-pandemic fall of 2019, high schools ran pep rallies to highlight the offer and try to get graduating seniors to “save their seat” at Alamo. The push worked, with 60 percent of the eligible 9,500 students finishing applications for financial aid and for admission to one of the Alamo colleges. Just shy of 3,000 enrolled in the fall of 2020; 86 percent of those were Hispanic and 6 percent African-American.

At Wagner High School, the district superintendent, Jeanette Ball pitched students on the program by talking both about her college achievements and the debts she incurred. “I wanted to let them know it can be done,” she said, of earning an associate degree without debt. “It’s not easy, but it’s doable,” Ball said.

Along with enabling students to graduate free of debt, the Alamo Colleges try to reduce other barriers that may prevent students from starting, continuing or finishing college. That’s why they feature food pantries at each of the five campuses, as well as low-cost health centers and three daycare centers spread across the schools’ five campuses, officials said. Alamo also offers students emergency financial assistance. When severe winter storms swept through the state last February, for example, resulting in millions of state residents losing power, officials said Palo Alto handed out $70,000 to more than 200 students, and, in partnership with the San Antonio food bank, some 128,500 pounds of food to 2,652 individuals in the area.

When an official from another school asked Gilbert Becerra Jr., the vice president of student success at Palo Alto, if these measures dragged the school outside of their lane, he said, “We realized that anything that gets in the way of learning is our lane.”

Alex Badillo’s second attempt at higher education nearly ended before it started. But after getting a past tuition bill paid through Alamo’s emergency financial fund, the second-year student is on track to become the first in his family to earn a college degree. Credit: Wayne D’Orio for The Hechinger Report

Alex Badillo is an example of how these programs can help. Originally arrested when he was 12, Badillo spent years in jail and years more on probation. When he finally got to college, another arrest not only stopped his progress but left him with a $500 bill he needed to pay before resuming classes. When he applied to San Antonio College, officials there said, the school not only paid his bill but deposited $800 in his bank account to help him find housing.

“This school is my rock,” he said with a wide smile. “It’s not just the financial support, there’s people that believe in you.” The 29-year-old is on track this year to become the first in his family to finish college and said he hopes to become a probation officer.

Martha Kanter, the executive director of College Promise, a national nonprofit that builds support for free college programs, said a recent report had catalogued 800 barriers to student retention and success.

Related: Business partnerships with community colleges funnel workers to better jobs

“What keeps a student from staying in school can be something as simple as a bill from four years ago, a car breakdown, books,” she said. And it isn’t just about the money. “Students need support, guidance, a career pathway. Those supports are critical.”

A few years ago, the Alamo consortium revamped its counseling philosophy, to make sure students met with counselors in their major at regular intervals and to create so-called “guided pathways,” mapping all its programs to either employment or transfers to four-year colleges. The work has resulted in dropping students’ average time to earning an associate degree from 4.6 years in 2015 to 3.76 years in 2020.

When the pandemic hit, another benefit of this overhaul became clear. During the spring 2020 semester when Covid forced all classes online, the five schools’ 150 counselors logged nearly one million interactions with students, advising about everything from tech and connectivity needs to social and emotional welfare to whether they had enough to eat, said Adelina Silva, the consortium’s vice chancellor of student success. More than half of the interactions came through mass weekly emails that advised students about key deadlines and resources available to them.

“We’re very, very proactive,” Silva said. “We call it intrusive in a good way.”

The payoff surprised even the vice chancellor: the course completion rate for Alamo during that semester was 91.8 percent, its best mark ever, she said.

Alamo’s new college promise program offers graduates of 30 city high schools three years of free tuition and fees.
Alamo College District Chancellor Mike Flores has dramatically reduced the time it takes students to earn a degree by revamping the school’s counseling philosophy to make sure all students have a clear path to a career or a transfer to a four-year school. Alamo’s new Promise program offers graduates of 25 city high schools three years of free tuition and fees. Credit: Alamo College District

The Alamo Colleges’ accomplishments have helped secure passage of a $450 million bond issue for the schools (by a two-to-one margin among voters) and have helped officials raise more than $12 million in private funding for Alamo Promise since the program was announced in 2019. While the program has received million-dollar donations from local groups, the biggest splashes came seven months apart recently when MacKenzie Scott and her husband Dan Jewett donated $20 million to Palo Alto College and $15 million to San Antonio College. Some of this money will be used for the Alamo Promise program, officials said. (The other three colleges in the consortium are Northeast Lakeview College, Northwest Vista College and St. Philip’s College.)

The schools have garnered national acclaim for their work, as well. The five-college district won the 2018 Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award; Palo Alto College was ranked in the top 1 percent of community colleges nationally by The Aspen Institute in 2019, and this year San Antonio College won the Aspen Prize as the best community college in the country.

For all their work behind the scenes, Alamo Promise officials agree that stories like Garza’s prove the program’s worth.

“I didn’t think I’d make it this far, this fast,” he said. “My high school me would be proud of me.”

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