(From left) East Central ISD Superintendent Roland Toscano, East Central High School student Christian Luensmann, and Texas A&M-San Antonio President Cynthia Teniente-Matson stand on stage as East Central High School students perform behind them. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

As East Central High School students played the drums, danced, and cheered in the background, Texas A&M University-San Antonio announced two new financial aid initiatives Tuesday aimed at helping Texas college students graduate with little to no debt. 

Through one program, eligible high school seniors graduating in the top 10 percent of their class will be able to enroll at TAMU-SA without paying tuition, the Southside university said in a statement Tuesday.

The programs aim to “maximize scholarships, value, and free tuition for eligible students,” TAMU-SA said. In celebration of launching the programs, TAMU-SA held a pep rally at East Central High School, one of the campuses that are part of a collaborative effort between the university and seven south Bexar County ISDs to improve educational outcomes and college readiness.

With a goal of helping students graduate with little to no debt, the university has created the Jaguar Excellence Guarantee, through which TAMU-SA commits support, resources, services, and faculty toward helping its students get the financial aid they need. TAMU-SA offers the guarantee to any student who applies for admission, completes the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) or Texas Application for State Financial Aid (TASFA), and submits a TAMU-SA scholarship application.

The Achiever Promise, which is part of the Jaguar Excellence Guarantee, allows high school students in the top 10 percent of their graduating class to enroll tuition-free upon acceptance to the university, TAMU-SA said. Any high school senior graduating from an early college high school in Texas with 30 hours of college credit or more also is eligible for free tuition under this program.

The Achiever Promise initiative is funded through the Texas A&M System Regents Scholarship Fund, which was announced earlier this summer. The Texas A&M University System Board of Regents created a $100 million scholarship fund with the goal of making the A&M System’s 11 universities better reflect the state’s demographics. The program provides $10 million annually over 10 years for scholarships to students from all socioeconomic backgrounds – particularly to low income, first-generation students and students from geographically underrepresented regions of the state.

Currently, 73 percent of TAMU-SA students pay no tuition after receiving financial aid, according to the statement by the university. Overall, 98 percent of the student body receives some form of financial assistance, including grants, scholarships, and federal work-study jobs.

“This summer when the Texas A&M University System announced a $100 million Regent’s scholarship … we were able to take our percentage of that, and that allowed us to fund this top 10 percent aspect,” TAMU-SA President Cynthia Teniente-Matson said of a scholarship fund designed to increase diversity across the university system. “It also will feed into the university’s creation of an honors program, which will be happening in the coming year.”

Matson said approximately $500,000 a year will go toward the new honors program. Students enrolling for the fall 2021 semester will be eligible for it, she said.

The number of students who utilize the Achiever Promise initiative will depend on how many high school seniors from around the state within the top 10 percent of their class apply to TAMU-SA, said Brandy McLelland, TAMU-SA vice president of enrollment management. 

These initiatives were created to help make TAMU-SA more competitive as a university in which students it attracts, Matson said. Matson noted that schools around the nation all compete for students within the top 10 percent of their graduating classes.

TAMU-SA’s new initiatives join the ranks of similar programs in San Antonio, such as the Alamo Promise program offered through the Alamo Colleges system and the Bold Promise program offered to low- to middle-income students attending the University of Texas at San Antonio.

Alamo Promise is a “last-dollar” scholarship program that covers tuition expenses not covered by federal aid. To be eligible, the student must attend one of 25 local high schools. UTSA’s Bold Promise program is open to first-time freshmen who are state residents and who come from families with an income below $50,500. Student must qualify for admission by ranking in the top 25 percent of their high school class and have graduated from high school within 16 months of their initial enrollment as first-time freshmen.

East Central High School Principal Shane McKay said programs that increase access to higher education give Southside San Antonio high school students hope. 

“Our primary focus is to help all of our students find whatever their path may be,” McKay said. “We want to create open access and opportunities, and more importantly the expectation that every student can [go to college]. What this does is this is break down all kinds of barriers for some of our students who would have never been able to attend a four-year university right out of high school.”

TAMU-SA will continue making strides within the Jaguar Excellence Guarantee to make college affordable for all its students, both through private donations and scholarships and other upcoming programs, McLelland said.

“We’re really trying to support the South Side,” McLelland said. “That’s our mission. “That’s what we were created to do.”

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Lindsey Carnett

Lindsey Carnett covers the environment, science and utilities for the San Antonio Report.