San Antonio Program Makes a Unique Promise to Potential College Students
Let me paint a scenario for you, and explain that it's something the roughly 900-plus community colleges around the United States all face together. It's reported in a fabulous Washington Post story dated Jan. 14, under the headline "Texas community college group aims to help students beyond the classroom."
Five San Antonio community colleges, collectively known as the Alamo College District — including Northeast Lakeview College, Northwest Vista College, Palo Alto College, St. Philip's College and San Antonio Collegw — serve more than 68,000 students in the San Antonio metro area, together offering more than 300 degree and certificate programs.
The bad news is this: Enrollment at these five schools dropped by 5.5 percent between Fall 2020 and Fall 2021.
To help counter this drop, they've introduced Alamo Promise (stylized as AlamoPROMISE at its aforelinked website), a program that links up with area high schools to encourage students to continue on to post-secondary education. But this program offers more than just mere encouragement.
Alamo Promise offers full scholarships and additional support to students to make sure they can attend — and graduate from — an Alamo District College of their own choosing. That explains why enrollment in these colleges from connected Promise participant high schools is up 17 percent over the two years that the program has been up and running.
As of last October, in fact, "eligible seniors from participating high schools can �save a seat' for tuition-free college as an AlamoPROMISE Scholar," to quote from program's home page banner. That's pretty remarkable.
The Considerable 'Credentials Gap' Is Not Just a San Antonio Problem
The Post article reports further that, "For the fall semester of the program's second year, the five Alamo colleges admitted 2,423 students, with 87 percent of them Hispanic and 6 percent African American. Alamo Promise students can be either full-time or part-time students."
Here's a program with proven effectiveness in encouraging targeted student populations to attend college — the numbers more than bear it out. The same story also reports that only half of seniors in high school in San Antonio attend college, and only 34 percent carry on to earn a diploma.
It further cites a Georgetown University study that observes that 65 percent of available U.S. jobs now require post-secondary credentials. San Antonio's numbers need to change, just for the city to employ its own people and keep its economy growing.
The Post quotes San Antonio mayor Ron Nirenberg as saying, "When we first started planning the Alamo Promise program, we called it our moonshot for ending cycles of generational poverty that have been in San Antonio for decades." He continues: "We have to bust some myths about what higher education is all about.
"If you want to work in a job that pays a living wage, you are going to have to have some kind of post-secondary credential."
What the Promise Program Promises, and What It Delivers
The Alamo College District schools chose 25 San Antonio high schools where the majority of students don't attend college, and where over half qualify as "economically disadvantaged." The program offers AlamoPROMISE scholars three years of tuition and fees, paid in full, once students apply for financial aid.
They call the program "last-dollar scholarship," because it pays any costs that remain once financial aid has been exhausted. There are no income limits for program participants, either.
Here are how things have worked out: In its first year of operation, the program paid out an average of slightly more than $2,000 per year for student tuition and fees, on average. Because full-time tuition for in-state residents costs $3,112, this means an average student qualified for more than $1,000 in other financial aid. In addition to what the Promise program covers, though, the Alamo College District schools that students attend provide additional support.
That includes health care and day care, both of which are available to all students, and get paid from each school's general operating budget. In fact, the five colleges also offer emergency financial assistance, as well as counseling and support, career guidance, and "guided pathways" through the educational process at their schools.
Counselors logged more than 1 million student interactions in Spring 2020, and provided advice on everything from obtaining meals for those without enough to eat, to technology and connectivity for remote learning, to support in dealing with social and emotional issues and welfare. As a result of this intense support, the Alamo College schools reported a course completion rate of nearly 92 percent for that semester, on par with the best Ivy League schools.
There's more support for intake, too. Because financial aid applications can be challenging and even off-putting, the Alamo Promise Program works with students across the entire application process, from initial forms — including the sometimes formidable FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) — all the way through completion, submission, and decision support when acceptances come in.
This means that students can get over hurdles that might otherwise block their program participation (and college attendance).
What the Country Can Learn from Alamo Promise
The success of this program shows that proactive outreach into underserved and underprivileged communities through high schools is key. This explains why the Alamo program plans to add 47 additional schools to its participant list for the upcoming 2022-2023 academic year.
It also strongly suggests that other metro areas with community college systems should be thinking about creating (or extending) promise programs of their own. As I discussed last week in this space, declining college enrollment is a problem that affects all of us, no matter where we live.
The San Antonio program (and others like it) is a win-win, because it can help offset, and possibly even reverse, declining post-secondary enrollment issues while opening the door to millions of Americans who will benefit from college graduation, and the increase opportunities and lifetime earnings that added education enable. Go USA!