Alamo Colleges and city, county, and business leaders are laying plans for a program that would provide free community college tuition to all seniors graduating from Bexar County high schools.

The program would be a game-changer in boosting education attainment, creating a more attractive workforce for San Antonio, and fighting generational poverty, Alamo Colleges Chancellor Mike Flores said. As many as 16,000 graduating seniors from about 45 high schools eventually could be eligible.

Flores said the potential cost of the program has not been determined yet but estimated it could range from $2 million in the first year to $15 million when the program is operating at full capacity. Flores has not publicly identified funding sources; those involved in the planning process speculated both public funds and private philanthropy could be involved.

“It tells [students] once you graduate from high school, your community will support you for your first two years of a college education,” Flores said. “You’ll be 50 percent of the way [to a four-year degree.]”

Only about 26 percent of San Antonio residents have a bachelor’s or advanced degree, according to 2017 census data. The median earnings for a San Antonio resident over age 25 with a high school diploma only is just under $26,000. For residents with some college or an associate’s degree, the median income jumps to nearly $32,000, and for those with a bachelor’s degree, it rises to almost $50,000.

“We hear a lot in the media or in talking to others that college is increasingly unaffordable,” Flores said. “What we’re doing is really changing the mindset to say as a community we want to invest in students and this will be affordable and we’re going to underwrite this cost.”

The program, which is being called Alamo Promise, would be styled after similar programs in the country, including Dallas County Promise. Started in fall 2017, Dallas County Promise will cover the tuition for graduates from 43 high schools in 2019. It is considered a last-dollar scholarship, which means the program pays any tuition costs not covered by federal or other financial aid. Participants must apply for financial aid.

Mike Flores will take over as Alamo Colleges chancellor on Oct. 1.
Alamo Colleges Chancellor Mike Flores Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Flores noted that sometimes students don’t bother applying for financial aid because they don’t believe that aid would cover enough tuition to make college affordable. If students know early on in high school that they will have a guaranteed way to pay for college, more students might graduate from high school.

Southwest Independent School District Superintendent Lloyd Verstuyft said Alamo Promise’s message has the potential to make a significant impact in how many students complete financial aid applications.

Verstuyft was one of several local representatives who made a trip to Dallas in mid-December to learn more about Dallas County Promise. He was impressed by the partnerships he saw between school districts and the community college system.

“We often have dialogue about finances being a barrier, but rarely do we come up with opportunities to remove that,” Verstuyft said. “In my opinion, this is one of the greatest opportunities, or potential programs, that I have seen in my 30 years of education that really removes that barrier for our youth.”

The Dallas program, which has received financial support from the Dallas County Community College Foundation and the private sector, matches all participating students with a coach who serves as a mentor from the end of their senior year of high school through graduation from the community college. Tuition is covered for up to three years or upon the completion of an associate’s degree.

In its first year of operation, Dallas County’s program saw a 40 percent increase in enrollment in the Dallas County Community College District from 31 participating high schools and a 30 percent increase in enrollment at University of North Texas-Dallas.

Alamo Promise is still in the early planning stages, and Flores said he was not sure when the program would launch. The planning process will continue over the next year and include conversations with business leaders, nonprofits, and government officials.

He said it is important get a plan in place within the “next year or so,” while also working to ensure the program is financial and operationally sustainable. When asked if the program could be started in time to benefit any students currently enrolled in high school, Flores said yes.

In mid-December, Alamo Colleges representatives began meeting with Mayor Ron Nirenberg’s office and SA Works, an organization that connects education interests and employers to promote economic mobility. The group will continue meeting regularly, Flores said, to figure out how best to use existing programs like the San Antonio Education Partnership and Café College to support Alamo Promise’s main goals.

Calling the potential program “catalytic” and “truly transformational,” Nirenberg told the Rivard Report discussions about Alamo Promise are just getting started. While he wouldn’t say whether public dollars could be used to fund Alamo Promise, Nirenberg conceded “any dollar spent toward [increasing access to educational opportunities] would be the best dollar the city could ever spend as a community.”

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said he believes Alamo Promise could be a “great program,” but there are still many details to flesh out. He indicated the County may be willing to provide some financial support when there is more information available on the structure of the program.

The important part, Wolff said, is to get money into the hands of students interested in pursuing a higher education.

SA Works Executive Director Romanita Matta-Barrera emphasized that working with participating school districts would be crucial to ensuring the success of the program.

Texas Education Agency data shows most Bexar County school districts fail to prepare even half their students for college.

“We need our school districts to look at how they can maximize the opportunity for youth that will no longer be in their schools but are going off to get a college degree,” Matta-Barrera said. “They need to be well-prepared to be successful. It would be a shame if we removed the financial barrier and a barrier to academic success was still there.”

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.