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Texas community college group aims to help students beyond the classroom

Alamo Colleges 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. (Alamo College District)

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 fiance 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, 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 also 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 nationwide, with 10 in Texas alone, according to the University of Pennsylvania’s database. Requirements can vary between programs, but most offer local students free tuition at nearby community colleges.

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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 an array of services, including low-cost health care, food pantries at each campus, and day-care programs that can cost parents as little as $10 a week. An emergency financial aid program helps students pay for car repairs, rent or medical needs if they qualify.

Although many of the Alamo Promise students would qualify for enough financial aid to attend college 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. Alamo Promise “is a clear message with no fine print.”

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

The five Alamo colleges’ overall enrollment fell by about 5.5 percent from fall 2020 to fall 2021, but the enrollment from the 25 high schools in the Promise program increased 17 percent, between the year before it began and its first year in fall 2020, 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 students.

Making this program work in San Antonio, the country’s seventh-largest city, could be instructive for other cities. While San Antonio is one of the fastest-growing economic regions in the United States, 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 said he hopes the program will help the city chip away at its need for information-technology and health-care workers.

“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.”

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 Alamo Promise pays whatever costs remain after financial aid. The program has no income limits for participants.

In the first year, the Alamo Promise program ended up paying a little more than $2,000 per year for each student’s tuition and fees; 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. The Promise program pays only for students’ tuition and fees; the other services available to students, including health care and day care, 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 high schools, said Stephanie Vasquez, Alamo Promise’s chief program officer.

When the program launched in the pre-pandemic fall of 2019, high schools held pep rallies to highlight the offer and encourage 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, the program’s first year enrolling students.

Along with enabling students to graduate debt free, 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 day-care centers, officials said. Alamo also offers students emergency financial assistance.

When an official from another school asked Gilbert Becerra Jr., vice president of student success at Palo Alto College, one of the five participating in the Alamo Promise program, whether these measures dragged the school outside of its lane, he said, “We realized that anything that gets in the way of learning is our lane.”

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

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“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 for earning an associate’s 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 classes online, the five schools’ 150 counselors logged nearly 1 million interactions with students, advising on tech and connectivity needs, social and emotional welfare, even on whether they had enough to eat, said Adelina Silva, the consortium’s vice chancellor of student success.

“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.

For all the investment 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 would be proud of me.”

This story about college promise programs was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.