Mathew Ramos feared he would never make it to college.

The 2020 Lanier High School graduate didn’t have any family members who could help him with tuition. His mother died when he was 16, and his father is disabled and cannot work, his Supplemental Security Income eaten up by bills.

At best, Ramos figured he would need to take at least a year off from school to save money to pay for college.

Instead, the 19-year-old Ramos is enrolled at St. Philip’s College this semester and taking 12 credit hours toward earning an associate degree under the new Alamo Promise program. It covers the cost of any tuition and fees not funded by other financial aid. For Ramos, the program removed the worry of student loans hanging over his and his family’s head.

“Alamo Promise basically opened a whole new door for me by giving me a chance to attend college, instead of having to take that one year off,” Ramos said. “I was already school-hungry, and I wanted to do something with my life.”

Alamo Promise is a new, free tuition program offered by Alamo Colleges that began recruiting high school seniors last year. Students who graduate from 25 high schools in San Antonio and are Bexar County residents are eligible for the “last-dollar” scholarship program, said Stephanie Vasquez, chief program officer for Alamo Promise. Students’ tuition and fees are covered for up to three years or until they complete an associate degree.

Currently, 2,900 students are enrolled in Alamo Promise, and 2,800 high school seniors have submitted a “Save Your Seat” pledge, expressing interest in the program, Vasquez said.

Alamo Colleges Chancellor Mike Flores said the value of the Alamo Promise program is even greater than when it was conceived because the pandemic has left so many people without work.

“It provides peace of mind for students and definitely for their families,” he said.

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 last year that the program would cost about $122 million over the first five years, with federal financial aid covering most, $88 million, of those costs. Alamo Colleges estimated it would need to raise $18 million in private donations over the program’s first 10 years.

For the program’s first five years, Alamo Colleges has raised $7.3 million through private donations, including a $2 million donation from USAA, the largest private donation the college district has received, Vasquez said. The City has provided $1.1 million as part of its agreement, and the County has provided $150,000.

Vasquez said the college district is revisiting its funding goals because it wants to confirm the cost of the program per student and the expected financial contribution from students that Alamo Promise has to cover after other forms of financial aid have been exhausted. Some students receive more federal financial aid than others, which means Alamo Colleges would need to pay less to cover their college expenses.

The Alamo Colleges District board likely will examine funding projections next month, when budget talks begin and after Vasquez and her team have reviewed the estimated financial contribution for each of the first 2,900 Alamo Promise students, she said. That will help determine how much money the college district needs to raise, and the information will be reviewed annually to keep the fundraising goals on track.

“Now that we have baseline data from our first cohort of scholars, we are actually reviewing all of our budget information,” Vasquez said. “We just want to make sure that we have a really well-informed sense of what will our overall needs be moving forward.”

While Alamo Colleges wanted to expand the number of high schools whose students are eligible for Alamo Promise this year, some lingering questions about funding and the coronavirus pandemic have put those plans on pause for now, Vasquez said.

The 25 Alamo Promise high schools have less than 50 percent of their students attending college after graduation and more than 50 percent of their graduating classes are considered economically disadvantaged, Vasquez said.

“We felt that expanding the program and recruitment efforts to an additional 20 schools would be quite a bit of an undertaking in the pandemic environment,” she said. “We also wanted to be mindful of the overall sustainability of the program and the financial implications of adding additional schools right now. COVID added a different element that we wanted to mindful of in terms of our expansion plans.”

Vasquez said the feedback she’s gotten from students in the Alamo Promise program has been mostly positive. Students have said the program enabled them to attend college without having to ask their parents for financial help.

Ramos agreed. When he first heard of the program as a high school senior, he said he knew right away that was his opportunity to attend college right after high school.

“My eyes blew up,” he said of hearing about Alamo Promise. “That’s my ticket right there.”

Ramos said he thought about attending the University of Texas at San Antonio, but he would have had to pay more than $1,200, even with financial aid.

“I didn’t really have any money in my pocket during that time,” he said. “Alamo Promise basically opened a whole new door for me by giving me a chance to attend college.”

The program covered almost $500 for Ramos’ books and other instructional materials, as well as about $800 in tuition and fees his federal financial aid did not cover. After earning his associate degree at St. Philip’s, he plans to transfer to UTSA in two years to complete his bachelor’s degree in cybersecurity.

Ramos’ advice to high school students considering Alamo Promise is to take the opportunity to apply because “every student deserves a chance at college,” he said. He may have had to stay up late and after school, writing essays and filling out his application, but Ramos said it was worth every bit of lost sleep.

“The way tuition and fees work and the amount of money you have to pay to attend these colleges, to me, it’s unfair,” he said. “Everyone deserves a chance at a better life, and I guarantee you that you will not be disappointed.”

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Brooke Crum

Brooke Crum is the San Antonio Report's education reporter.