About 4,000 more San Antonio high school students now have access to the free tuition program offered by the Alamo Colleges District, after its board of trustees unanimously voted Tuesday to add more high schools to the initiative.

Students who graduate from 47 high schools are eligible for Alamo Promise, a last-dollar scholarship program that covers the cost of tuition and fees not funded by other financial aid for up to three years or until students complete an associate degree.

When the college district launched Alamo Promise in 2019, students from 25 San Antonio high schools qualified for the program.

Alamo Colleges had planned to add 20 high schools to qualify for the scholarship program in 2021 but paused those efforts because of the pandemic.

Stephanie Vasquez, Alamo Promise chief program officer, said the college district will target about 13,500 students in the 47 high schools in the third year of the program, which starts fall 2022.

The program selects schools that have historically low college-going rates and economic disadvantaged status. The new schools have less than 50% of their students attending college after graduation and more than 40% of students are considered economically disadvantaged. 

Alamo Colleges hopes to have at least 3,900 students enrolled in Alamo Promise for the fall 2022 semester, up from 2,400 who enrolled this semester. More than 8,500 students have expressed interest in Alamo Promise for next fall by submitting a “Save Your Seat” pledge, Vasquez said. The deadline to enroll is Feb. 28. About 6,700 students “saved their seats” for fall 2021, while 2,400 actually enrolled in the program.

“That is really leaps and bounds over where we were this time last year,” she said. “That is testament and power to all of the work that the colleges have been taking care of every day, being able to have multiple modes of service.”

Alamo Colleges staff have been able to recruit students in person again, much like the early days of Alamo Promise, before the pandemic shut down schools in March 2020, although some schools still prefer virtual events. In 2019 and early 2020, high schools held in-person, save-your-seat events in “really vibrant environments,” Vasquez said.

“We’ve been able to reinvigorate that sort of atmosphere yet again,” she said. “That is the power of being able to be in person and on-campus again.”

But while recruiting students and working with high school partners in “pandemic mode,” Vasquez said staff realized that students still need extra support to transition to college. For that reason, the program is offering students more time to enroll, extending outreach through the spring instead of just the fall when the bulk of enrollment occurs.

She said Alamo Promise is in the middle of a “continued spring enrollment push,” reaching out to students through phone calls, text messages, emails, fliers and financial aid sessions, virtually and in person.

Alamo Promise is funded through an agreement with the City of San Antonio and Bexar County and through private donations, Vasquez said. The community college district estimated that the program would cost about $122 million over the first five years, with federal financial aid covering most, $88 million, of those costs. The amount of federal aid that is applied to the overall cost will be updated and presented as part of program updates and annual budget planning in the spring.

The community college district has raised more than $12 million in private funds, $5.3 million of which goes toward scholarships, $5.4 million toward endowment and $1.4 million toward program funding. The city and the county also have contributed $3.9 million. As schools are added to the program, Alamo Colleges will need to identify more funding sources, Vasquez said.

Most of the students who enrolled in Alamo Promise this fall attended one of the five largest school districts in San Antonio: Northside, North East, San Antonio, Judson or Southwest independent school districts. SAISD students represented a fifth of Alamo Promise enrollment. Vasquez said they also are “strong partners that continue to allow us to do programming with their schools in multiple modalities to recruit students.”

Of the five Alamo Colleges campuses, San Antonio College and Palo Alto College led the way in Alamo Promise scholar enrollment this fall, with about two-thirds enrolling on those two campuses. That’s similar to the first cohort of students who started in fall 2020, Vasquez said.

The expansion of Alamo Promise comes in the wake of several recent financial boosts for the district.

In October, Alamo Colleges received more than $19 million in federal grants, with about $10 million going toward increasing the number of students who pursue degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. SAC and PAC both recently received the largest donations in their histories — $15 million and $20 million respectively — from billionaire philanthropist and author MacKenzie Scott.

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Brooke Crum

Brooke Crum covered education for the San Antonio Report.