School districts, community colleges and four-year universities are working together in San Antonio to streamline the path from elementary school to college in a pipeline called the “K20 learning pathway” — and it appears to be working. 

More San Antonio Independent School District students are attending college this year since 2014, and the city bucked national trends amid the pandemic by maintaining relatively stable amounts of diplomas issued and first-year college enrollment, according to National Student Clearinghouse data.

Colleges and universities nationwide are slowly recovering, the data show, from steep enrollment declines that occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic, but many have still not returned to pre-pandemic levels.

On Thursday, a panel at the National Education Conference, held in San Antonio this year, explored the building blocks of the pipeline that bring together institutions that are traditionally separate, entrenched, and, in the case of community colleges and four-year universities, competitive.

“It is a collective impact strategy,” said Mike Flores, chancellor of the Alamo Colleges District. “I don’t see it as necessarily a zero sum game, that … UTSA’s gain is our loss. There is much work to be done.” 

Seniors from dozens of participating high schools across Bexar County are eligible to attend one of the five colleges in the Alamo District tuition and fee-free through the expanding Alamo Promise program, and continue tuition-free at the University of Texas at San Antonio through a “promise to promise” partnership that is being tested. 

Instead of competition, panelists agreed, there is a need for collaboration to provide a path for the 50% of Bexar County graduates that did not move on to higher education. 

“We actually compete with poverty,” Flores said. “Our prospective students each and every day weigh the opportunity costs of whether they can afford tuition.”

Students have to decide between tuition and working less hours and making less money, he said.

Flores said that 70% of Alamo College students rely on needs-based scholarships and “aren’t supposed to succeed in the common narrative.” 

“But they are students who do succeed when provided with the right supports,” he added.

Those supports begin in high school, where a variety of post-secondary navigators assist students in learning about college opportunities, applying and getting ready for college. Students continue to receive assistance once they are there. 

SAISD Superintendent Jaime Aquino, who spoke on the panel, said he would like to see the support expanded, and paid for by school districts to ensure students have access through the process. Their advocacy on behalf of students goes beyond the obvious, he said, pointing to the experience of a student who successfully made it to college, but nearly dropped out after their laptop broke. 

“Our post-secondary navigator came to us, and through our foundation, we gave them a brand new laptop,” he said. 

Aquino touted a 52% college enrollment figure for the class of 2022, the highest the number has been since 2014. 

“Look at the students that we serve, we are showing … that the way kids come to us is no excuse for the way they leave,” he said. 

Aquino told the San Antonio Report that the partnerships are “just scratching the surface,” with an eye for growth in the years to come. The district leader also said he would like to see improvements in outcomes for students with disabilities in the post-secondary pathway. 

The  expansion of the Alamo Promise program offers seniors at participating high schools in the county the opportunity to attend one of the Alamo District Colleges tuition and fee-free and then enroll tuition-free at UTSA.
The expansion of the Alamo Promise program offers seniors at participating high schools in the county the opportunity to attend one of the Alamo District Colleges tuition and fee-free and then enroll tuition-free at UTSA. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Panelist Heather Shipley, the senior vice provost of Academic Affairs and dean of University College at UTSA, said that in order for partnerships like the one in San Antonio to work, it takes time.

“We really need to be intentional and not competitive about these types of processes,” she said, referring to the various partnerships with the Alamo Colleges District. “That wasn’t something we did overnight. It took time and talking and a lot of resources.”

Shipley also said such a collaboration requires data to be shared in a thoughtful way, so that students can easily transfer and “don’t get lost in the process.”

Superintendents and other school leaders from across the country gathered around the leaders to ask questions after the panel. Shipley’s main advice was to start the pipeline by getting the necessary people in the room and having a conversation.

“I think sometimes we … get in a room and we’re like, we got to do all of this all at once,” she said. “As one of my colleagues said, you can’t eat an elephant in one bite. You have to eat a bite at a time.”