Nicole Franklin went to a magnet high school program and won scholarships to a small liberal arts college in New Mexico, only to stop mid-way when she realized the program wouldn’t allow her to pursue her passion for painting.

She returned to San Antonio and worked as a caregiver, a portraitist, and a GIS-mapper, among other jobs, while dabbling in classes at community college in an effort to complete her degree.

Now 26, she hopes to complete a 4-year degree in a high-paying field in the sciences and paint on the side. But first she has to make sense of her hodgepodge of disjointed college credits, and hope that they accelerate the completion of that degree.

While her story is in every way personal and unique, she is in no way alone.

This April, Andrew Luna walked through the doors of Café College. A 51-year-old father of three adult children, Luna wasn’t what City leaders pictured when they created San Antonio’s one-stop college advising center. But in fact, about one in four who have walked through its doors since it opened in 2009 have been adults seeking to return to college.

Luna did a stint as a teacher in a private Christian school, but without a bachelor’s degree could never make a career as an elementary school teacher, his dream. He hopscotched around the globe following his wife’s career in the Army, taking all his basic courses and even college algebra, all while preparing his own three children to succeed in college.

While the stories of Franklin and Luna, so far apart in age and experience, seem superficially different in every way, they share a common goal of finishing the college degree they started.

“I always wanted to be an educator,” Luna said. “I just went around the mountain a few times.”

They also both describe feeling frustrated, and at times overwhelmed, as they try to determine the most efficient path to earn a degree.

“I have felt very alone and unique and like I can’t fit into the system,” Franklin said.

A version of their stories are repeated in endless variations in San Antonio, where around 300,000 people – or nearly 25% of the population – have some college credits but no certificate or degree.

Café Commerce President Peter French and P16Plus Adam Tutor (author) pose a photo at the 2015 Destination College kickoff event on Monday. Photo courtesy of SA2020.
SA2020 Interim President and CEO Molly Cox encourages students to wear sunglasses – because their futures are so bright – during the 2014 Destination College kickoff event at Café College. Credit: Courtesy / P16Plus Council of Greater Bexar County

Despite a healthy employment rate, San Antonio’s economy suffers from a skills gap rooted in historically low educational attainment, and efforts to promote college-going have not resulted in higher completion rates. This challenge inhibits economic development, and often prevents our city from competing for top jobs, particularly in sectors like tech. San Antonio has an acute shortage in “middle skills,” or people who have competencies in areas such as advanced trades or IT that don’t require a bachelor’s degree but do require a certain level of education or training.

But this is not a completely “glass half empty” story – not for our city nor for Franklin and Luna.

Luna was inspired to visit Café College after Upgrade, a new program created in April 2017, was launched to help folks like him. It is the first Texas outpost of the Philadelphia-based The Graduate! Network, which pioneered an “institution agnostic” model to help adults identify the college that best fit their schedule, budget, location, and degree needs.

Upgrade targets a group of people hidden in plain sight in San Antonio, but until recently with few formal services to help them. Individuals come to a dedicated office in Café College to determine where they can gain the most value from their credits.

Recently, Franklin sat down with Upgrade Program Director Micaela Rios to sort through her 101 credit hours, knowing those she has taken in art, for example, may not help her complete her 4-year degree in science.

Upgrade Program Director Micaela Rios looks at a flyer she created.
Upgrade Program Director Micaela Rios looks at a flyer she created. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Rios helped Franklin package credits together to earn an associate degree (through a process known as reverse transfer), a milestone she is happy to achieve. Franklin described the value of seeing her various options – public and private, different degree plans – laid out before her so she could compare.

Economic development leaders in San Antonio have realized that people like Franklin and Luna represent an extraordinary opportunity – a personal investment that can potentially be converted into a tremendous benefit for individuals, families, companies and the community’s overall prosperity. If that degree is of high need to a local employer, the payoff is even more spectacular.

In 2015, SA2020’s Talent Pipeline Task Force – which I coordinated – was the first comprehensive effort to link the city’s focus on targeted industry sectors – health and biosciences, IT and cybersecurity and advanced manufacturing (auto and aviation) – with education and training. This data-driven effort found several silver linings in our education data. As a result it recommended San Antonio explore a partnership with a proven model like The Graduate! Network.

Adults who have dropped out of college may feel alone, often carry debt, and don’t know where to turn for help in entering a college world that may feel like it is set up for younger people, said Hadass Sheffer, executive director of The Graduate! Network.

Executive Director of The Graduate! Network Hadass Sheffer
Executive Director of The Graduate! Network Hadass Sheffer Credit: Courtesy

“We recognize that adults want to go back but have complexities in their lives that can stop them,” Sheffer said. “Even small things, like a missed deadline, can make someone reconsider.”

Providing some simple supports, such as aid with online registration, connection to a network or cohort, and ongoing encouragement, on top of degree and financial advising, can be enough to get them on track and help them stay, she added.

“What we do is to unpack the barriers which can seem daunting, and often are daunting when you look at them together,” Sheffer said. “A good advisor can help break these down into smaller steps and tasks, then remind people of what is next, what can be done today, and what can be done tomorrow.”

Returning adults demonstrate a level of grit and clarity of purpose compared to those entering college straight from high school, University of Louisville researcher Matthew Bergman found in a scan of the research.

Most are juggling work, families, or both. Many gravitate toward online institutions or those with flexible hours and/or night classes.

In an internal survey, the City of San Antonio found that about 1,700 of 6,000 civilian employees had some college credits but no degree or certificate, and a significant number of them, like Franklin and Luna, had more than two years worth.

At Upgrade’s public launch on April 5, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and Mayor Ivy Taylor explicitly linked the program to SA Works, their signature effort to better coordinate local workforce planning, training, and investment.

They hoped that many would follow in the path of Tina Flores, who started with the City of San Antonio in 2001 as an office assistant, with 24 college credits – but no degree.

The City’s tuition reimbursement enabled her to build on that foundation and complete her bachelor’s and then a master’s degree in business at the University of the Incarnate Word, a local institution that has pioneered online and evening classes sensitive to the schedules of working adults.

Today Flores is working in the City Auditor’s office as a compliance officer and completing her law degree at St. Mary’s University.

“I wish Café College was around when I was going to school,” she said. “You don’t know what classes to take, what a degree plan is – much less [how] to stick to one. The reason I wanted to go to school was just to be the best public servant I could be.”

The initiative receives financial support from higher education partners who have pledged to offer a “warm handoff” for students who may have had a bad experience their last time in school. Partners include Texas A&M University, UIW, Western Governor’s University, and all of the Alamo Colleges campuses.

Upgrade will also partner with employers such as the City, who are interested in helping their own employees fill needed positions higher on the career ladder. Many local companies offer tuition reimbursement, yet it is rarely promoted in this manner.

For nearly two decades, Luna focused on pushing his three oldest children in their educational pursuits; one will graduate from Texas A&M this spring, another is in the Army and enrolled in college in Anchorage, Alaska, and the third attends Northwest Vista College. Luna is now in the process of adopting five more from the foster system, and hopes to set a real life example for them.

Working together to make the most of his college credits and experience, Rios and Luna charted a plan to enroll in Western Governor’s University this summer for his degree in education.

People don’t typically think of education in the competitive terms of health care or IT, but in fact there is a tremendous demand for teachers in a community where local districts hire and import an estimated 3,000 annually from outside San Antonio. However, Luna’s reason is deeply personal.

“I want to show these kids it can be done,” Luna said. “They don’t have an excuse.”

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Jeanne Russell

Jeanne Russell is the owner and co-founder of Mission Street Consulting, LLC. In that capacity, she helped design and launch Upgrade, and now sits on its advisory board. Prior to forming Mission Street...