At a time when attending college is more expensive than ever, and the Texas Legislature has tried unsuccessfully to reduce or freeze tuition at public universities, the Alamo Colleges District is partnering with Texas A&M-College Station and Chevron to make engineering degrees more affordable to San Antonio students.

Launching in the forthcoming fall semester, the Texas A&M-Chevron Engineering Academy at Alamo Colleges District will provide local students a way to save thousands of dollars in tuition costs during the first two years of study on the way to a bachelor’s degree in engineering. With the money a community college student can save while living at home, the cost savings could be even greater.

Under the program, students in the Engineering Academy are co-enrolled in Texas A&M’s College of Engineering for one or two years while at the community college, then move on to A&M’s College Station campus to finish their degrees.

A student in the Engineering Academy can take basic core classes during the first two years of his or her program at any of the five Alamo Colleges campuses and take engineering courses at the Northeast Lakeview College campus. Texas A&M will provide a professor to teach the engineering courses in San Antonio, and A&M academic advisors will be available on a monthly basis to counsel students in the program. Students also will have the opportunity to travel to Texas A&M-College Station two or three times each semester.

Jackie Perez, Texas A&M’s director of engineering academies and workforce development programs, said the academy allows Texas A&M to reach out to areas of the state with fast-growing populations that will need engineers in the future. The partnership with Alamo Colleges is the Engineering Academy’s first foray into San Antonio.

Alamo Colleges Chancellor Bruce Leslie said the program affords students the opportunity to obtain two degrees: an associate degree from Alamo Colleges after completing 60 hours of coursework, and a baccalaureate degree in engineering from Texas A&M after completing 120 hours.

“Then if [students] have to delay [their education], they still have an associate degree that is marketable,” Leslie said.

Tuition for one semester at Texas A&M-College Station’s engineering school costs $6,123.42 for state residents, according to the university’s tuition calculator. A semester at Alamo Colleges costs $1,032. Over two years, or four semesters, a student’s tuition costs could be more than $20,000 less.

Students taking courses at Alamo Colleges will pay the community college tuition rate for all non-engineering courses, including general math and science courses. However, students will pay the Texas A&M tuition rate for the engineering course taught by a Texas A&M professor.

The savings are important, especially for students who might be interested in a career in engineering but deterred by the price tag for a bachelor’s degree at a four-year institution. With the Texas Workforce Commission projecting 25 percent growth in engineering jobs statewide over the next decade, officials with the two higher education institutions believe this program could play an important role in building a strong workforce for the state’s future.

The Engineering Academy first started in 2015 at Houston Community College in cooperation with Texas A&M. Chevron supported the program’s creation with an initial $5 million gift. Over time, other community college partners have joined the effort: Austin Community College, El Centro College in Dallas, and Texas Southmost College in Brownsville.

Austin Community College’s academy got underway in Fall 2017, said engineering professor and adviser Saad Eways, who oversees the program at ACC. This fall, some ACC students will be spending their first semester at Texas A&M-College Station as part of the academy.

He said ACC ensures that the curriculum is rigorous, so that students are prepared academically when they transition to College Station.

“We get in touch with students if they are in trouble and keep an eye on them to make sure they are ready,” Eways said. “It is the same as if [students] would have transferred [into the program] on their own.”

Applications for the program will open to Alamo Colleges students on March 1 for Fall 2018. Alamo Colleges plans to recruit from high schools and hopes to sign up 100 students for the program.

Leslie said it is just one of several programs the college system is working on to overcome challenges students encounter in pursuing higher education. A 2016 National Student Clearinghouse study found that only 14.7 percent of associate degree earners actually obtained a degree in two years. The National Student Clearinghouse is a nonprofit that reports on educational outcomes.

Alamo Colleges District said that 17.2 percent of its full-time, first-time-in-college students took six years to graduate and that 19.9 percent graduated in three years. Graduation data is only available for three-, four-, and six-year rates.

Michaela Steele, academic dean at San Antonio’s Memorial High School, said that local families often are committed to keeping students close to home.

“A lot of families in our community have very strong family ties, and when you are talking about sending someone’s daughter off to Texas A&M or [the University of North Texas] or Yale or across the country somewhere, you are removing a key component of that family unit,” Steele told the Rivard Report.

Leslie said this program allows students to spend more time at home before transitioning to a more remote college destination. “That’s a big thing for many families, particularly those in San Antonio,” he said.

Since 2016, Alamo Colleges has been part of the Texas Transfer Pathways Compact, a consortium of 15 regional universities that includes Austin Community Colleges, Texas State University, and Texas A&M-San Antonio that is working to align program requirements so that students can more easily transfer between universities as needed.

The program already has mapped roughly 200 programs between schools and is helping to save students money and time so they don’t have to repeat courses they have taken at other institutions.

“We have had too many students not be able to finish [their degrees]” because it took too long to nail down all the requirements after transferring between institutions, Leslie said.

Leslie hopes programs like the Engineering Academy will make achieving a higher education easier for area students.

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Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.