April Vidal began her senior year at Jefferson High School with a clear idea of what she wanted to do after graduating. She planned to attend San Antonio College to study mortuary science and grief counseling, a calling she discovered when her father died.

How the 17-year-old would afford her studies was less clear. The youngest of five children, Vidal would be the first of her siblings to attend college, but likely would need loans to pay for her education.

That changed on Wednesday with the official launch of Alamo Promise, a new program that ensures free tuition to Alamo Colleges schools for graduating Bexar County seniors.

In its first year, Alamo Promise will be open to students from 25 local high schools as a last-dollar scholarship, meaning the program will cover any remaining expenses not already covered by other scholarships or grants. In its second year, Alamo Promise will expand its reach to 20 additional Bexar County traditional public high schools.

Alamo Colleges chose the 25 initial high schools because of their high concentration of economically disadvantaged students and low rates of college attendance.

Phase 1 High Schools Credit: Courtesy / Alamo Colleges

On stage at Jefferson High School on Wednesday morning, Alamo Colleges Chancellor Mike Flores announced that students could officially start the signup process.

“Alamo Promise says to prospective students who are here in this audience, says to future students, that our community believes in you, that we have confidence in your ability to succeed and that paying for college education is no longer a consideration,” Flores said.

During the next program’s first five years, Alamo Colleges officials expect more than 19,000 new students to enroll in the community college system because of the program, boosting enrollment at participating high schools by 25 percent.

In recent months, Alamo Colleges has worked with community partners to fund the program. Two weeks ago, Toyota Motor Manufacturing Texas committed $500,000 for Alamo Promise’s first five years. The City of San Antonio’s fiscal year 2020 budget put aside $1.4 million for the program in 2021.

Alamo Colleges Chancellor Mike Flores announces the launch of Alamo Promise at Jefferson High School. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Alamo Colleges officials estimated the program will need $122.5 million to operate during its first five years. More than $88 million would be covered by federal financial aid. Local funding sources would pick up about $22.5 million, according to a July budget presentation from the community college system.

In future weeks, San Antonio Independent School District officials will recruit students who view finances as a barrier to attending college. Superintendent Pedro Martinez’s goal is to have 80 percent of the district’s students attending college, with half going to four-year universities.

He wants the district to focus its efforts on students not already planning on attending four-year institutions.

“This removes a barrier for my families and my children who say, ‘You know, superintendent, I don’t know if I want to take that [financial] risk. I don’t know if I want to jump in there and I’m worried if I can afford it in the future,’” Martinez said. “We are removing that risk.”

In between drumrolls, rustling pompoms, and flying lassos from cheer teams and pep squads, San Antonio leaders heaped praise on the new program, calling it a game changer.

“We know how critical it is and how essential it is to have a college education,” Alamo Colleges Trustee Joe Alderete Jr. said. “This program is going to be earth-shaking here in Bexar County. It’ll be like that blastoff to the moon.”

Festivities continued a few hours later in Judson High School’s performing arts center where balloons dropped from the rafters, confetti cannons popped, and Superintendent Jeanette Ball sent a flurry of fake dollar bills into the audience of Class of 2020 students.

Students began to whoop and yell, chanting “free college.”

Ball challenged Judson seniors to have 100 percent of their class fill out the Alamo Promise interest form before their district rivals at Wagner High School. If they rose to the challenge, she would award them a prize – early dismissal times, free prom, or maybe free graduation cap and gowns. All options were on the table, she said.

“You have to reserve your seat because you don’t know what life has in store for you,” Ball said, encouraging students who felt like they already had a plan in place to also look into Alamo Promise.

Judson High School journalism teacher and San Antonio College alumnus Pedro Cabrera addressed the seniors, underscoring why free access to Alamo Colleges was so significant. Before graduating from Holmes High School, he researched his options for college and found many to be cost-prohibitive.

He ultimately began studying journalism at San Antonio College before transferring to complete his bachelor’s degree at Texas State University. Now, Cabrera is close to completing his doctorate. He recently checked his student loan balance and discovered he still owes close to $85,000.

“I’m really jealous of all of you,” he said. “You guys now have something that a lot of your teachers didn’t. … That opportunity is there, and you guys just have to take it.”

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.