Palo Alto College
Students from 25 area high schools will be recruited under the 'Alamo Promise' free tuition plan providing up to 60 credit hours at Alamo Colleges. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Alamo Colleges officials will begin recruitment this fall for its free community college program at 25 high schools in Bexar County following a unanimous board approval vote Saturday.

The program will expand the following year to serve 20 additional public high schools. Charter and private schools were not listed as part of the program as of Saturday.

The program, dubbed Alamo Promise, ensures free tuition for 60 semester credit hours to Alamo Colleges for seniors graduating from Bexar County high schools. It will function as a last-dollar scholarship, covering the remaining tuition due after students apply for federal financial aid.

Alamo Colleges trustees voted unanimously Saturday to approve the program and move it forward for a September recruitment launch. Officials with the colleges expect more than 3,000 students to enroll from the first 25 high schools in the program’s first year, which is a net difference of close to 1,000 students.

The program will cost more than $5 million in its first year, with the majority of funding coming from federal financial aid. The City of San Antonio and Bexar County will help fund a small portion of the program’s first year, although that money has yet to be approved.

This is important for local students who struggle with the cost of higher education, said Bob McKinley, the vice chancellor of economic and workforce development.

“We know that what holds us back, or holds back our students are two main factors: affordability and accessibility,” McKinley said at an Alamo Colleges board meeting Saturday. “Our one-two punch from a policy standpoint on affordability is [Alamo] Promise.”

The high schools included in the first year of the program were chosen because of their high concentration of economically disadvantaged students and their low rates of college attendance. Schools in the second year often enroll more affluent students with higher college-going rates.

During the next five years, Alamo Colleges officials expect more than 19,000 new students to enroll in the system because of the program, resulting in a 25 percent increase of students at participating high schools attending the community colleges.

In the first year, the overall cost of the program will be roughly $5.6 million, with federal financial aid covering the vast majority of the expense. Alamo Colleges needs funding sources from the City or County to foot about $300,000 in the first year, Director of College Grants Development Stephanie Vasquez said.

Both City and County financial commitments were pending as of Saturday.

Each year, the cost of the program is expected to grow. When the program expands in its second year, it will cost more than $16 million. At that time, Alamo Colleges will need about $2.8 million in financial support from the City and County.

Alamo Colleges officials estimated the program would need $122.5 million to operate during its first five years. The majority, more than $88 million, would be covered by federal financial aid. Local funding sources would pick up about $22.5 million, according to Saturday’s presentation.

Three banks have committed money to support the program. Frost Bank, WellsFargo, and JP Morgan Chase have committed $450,000 so far, Vasquez said.

Alamo Colleges also will work with other community organizations to help operate the program. San Antonio Education Partnership and Café College will help recruit and enroll students, SA Works will teach students about high-needs and high wage careers during a summer orientation process, and UP Partnership will help track the progress of students and the program.

Four-year institutions also will work with Alamo Promise to look into the possibility of supporting students past their two-year degree and into potential bachelor’s degrees.

Phase 1 High Schools Credit: Courtesy / Alamo Colleges

To be eligible for the program, students have to submit a federal or Texas financial aid form, register at one of the Alamo Colleges, participate in a summer orientation program prior to fall semester if the high school GPA is below 2.5, maintain a 2.0 while at Alamo Colleges, and complete at least 18 credit hours per academic year.

At Saturday’s meeting, trustees also approved a $385 million operating budget for the 2019-20 school year. Alamo Colleges worked with more than $18 million in additional revenue during the past year, allowing the community college system to increase compensation for all employees, provide a living wage adjustment, and stipends for high-wage and high-demand programs.

Faculty and staff who will not receive a living wage adjustment of more than 3 percent on Sept. 1, will receive an increase amounting to 3 percent on Jan. 1.

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Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.