San Antonio, Texas tackles education inequality with free or reduced college tuition

President Biden proposed providing two years of tuition-free community college after he took office, but the idea was dropped after congressional opposition. Yet efforts persist at the local and state level to boost college attendance. More than 400 such programs now exist in the U.S., including in San Antonio, Texas. Hari Sreenivasan reports for our series, "Rethinking College."

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  • Geoff Bennett:

    After he took office, President Biden proposed providing two years of tuition-free community college. After congressional opposition to many of his larger plans, that plan was dropped.

    There have been efforts at the local and state level to boost college-going rates by offering free or reduced tuition to students who meet certain requirements, such as living in a designated community or attending a specific school. There are now more than 400 such programs across the country.

    San Antonio, Texas, which has been one of the highest urban poverty rates in the country — has one of the highest urban poverty rates, launched its own project in 2019.

    Special correspondent Hari Sreenivasan reports for our series on Rethinking College.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    On a recent morning, juniors and seniors at San Antonio's McCollum High School filed into the gym. The marching band played, cheerleaders hyped up the crowd, but this was not the typical high school pep rally.

    These students were cheering for what comes after high school.

  • Melissa Casey, Assistant Superintendent, Harlandale Independent School District:

    There is no reason why anyone in this room should not go to college.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    One hundred percent of McCollum students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Over the years, only about half of the school's graduating seniors and seniors throughout the region have pursued a post-secondary education.

    But there is a new effort under way to set San Antonio's young adults on a different path in life.

  • Melissa Casey:

    AlamoPROMISE says, if you commit to go to college, we're going to meet you where you're at. We're going to meet your need.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Now in its third year, the AlamoPROMISE program covers tuition and fees for up to three years at any of the five community colleges in the greater San Antonio area.

    It is funded with public and private dollars. All graduating seniors at nearly 50 area high schools in mostly low-income neighborhoods with college with low college-going rates are currently eligible.

  • Robert Garza, President, Palo Alto College:

    We're also working on something called Alamo Books, so that, when you go to college you, don't even have to pay for your textbooks.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Students are required to apply for federal financial aid. The program pays any remaining costs or a student's full tuition and fees. That's about $6,000 a year.

  • Robert Garza:

    You don't have to pay for school and don't have to pay for your textbooks. What a great opportunity. Then leave debt-free.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Nearly all of McCollum's seniors have expressed interest, filling out enrollment forms to — quote — "save their seats next fall," including Marissa Cardenas.

    She says she's looking forward to starting her college education debt-free.

  • Marissa Cardenas, Student:

    My dad and my mom, they didn't really have that much help, like, as in family, to help them with financial situations in school. So they just kind of went straight into the work force.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Only about 30 percent of adults in San Antonio have a college degree. And many people here struggle to find jobs that pay living wages.

    City leaders are hoping the AlamoPROMISE program can help break the cycles of generational poverty.

    Ron Nirenberg, Mayor of San Antonio, Texas: We are introducing a pathway to post-secondary education for tens of thousands of students who prior to AlamoPROMISE would not have had that opportunity, who were statistically condemned to living and likely raising more children in poverty.

    AlamoPROMISE is our moonshot to breaking that cycle.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Ron Nirenberg is the mayor of San Antonio and an early backer of the program.

  • Ron Nirenberg:

    Economic mobility is such a challenge for our community.

    The problem is, the jobs that are being created and the jobs that pay at living wage are increasingly requiring some sort of post-secondary education. And without that opportunity to get trained or to have that credential or to get the degree, there is no path to coming out of poverty.

  • Jaeden Montero, Student:

    It gets pretty hard to just keep up with the bills. So, me going to college seemed almost impossible.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Eighteen-year-old Jaeden Montero first learned about AlamoPROMISE in the fall of 2020, when he was a high school senior.

    His close-knit family was worried about how they would pay for his college. His mom works for the San Antonio Police Department, his dad as a repair man.

    Marcos Monero, Father of Jaeden Montero: One of the things that I had in mind — and we discussed it with my wife — we're going to have to sell the house and move to a tiny house.

    Myrna Montero, Mother of Jaeden Montero: I was very nervous because we are at that bracket where we make too much money for Pell Grants or any type of assistance, but yet we don't make enough money to send him to any college or university and still be comfortable.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    When they learned about the AlamoPROMISE program during Jaeden's senior year, they say it was a big relief.

  • Person:

    We are going to look at the history of the English language.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Montero is now finishing up his freshman year at San Antonio College with a 4.0 GPA. He is hoping to attend the University of Texas at San Antonio when he graduates.

  • Jaeden Montero:

    Because I do have AlamoPROMISE program, I have been saving up a little bit. It's seeming manageable right now. I might not make it with no debt, but it will be very minimal at least.

  • Mike Flores, Chancellor, Alamo Colleges District:

    Graduating high school seniors within San Antonio and our county are interested in going to college. And they needed for the community to come forward and say, we believe in you.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Mike Flores is the chancellor of the five community colleges in San Antonio, known as the Alamo Colleges District.

  • Mike Flores:

    Ninety-two percent of the PROMISE scholars are Latino, Hispanic or African American. These are students that are coming from some of the highest poverty rates within our community and actually within the United States.

    Our students don't look at, can I afford to go to Alamo Colleges? They consider whether they can afford to work less hours. And so PROMISE helps alleviate most or part of that consideration.

  • Person:

    This was our first time doing TikTok advertising.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Flores and his colleagues are trying new ways to reach students and their families to let them know about the program.

  • Person:

    I'm an AlamoPROMISE scholar, so I attend college tuition-free.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    They say outreach efforts have made a difference, despite the pandemic's turbulent impacts.

  • Person:

    We were able to get a million total impressions, 633,000 reach.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    From the fall of 2019 to the fall of 2020, when overall Texas community college enrollment declined, AlamoPROMISE high schools increased their community college enrollment by 17 percent.

    Flores says college completion is just as important as increased enrollment. San Antonio College and the other community colleges offer supports to students, including free food and clothing, low-cost child care and health care, and emergency financial aid for things like rent and car payments.

  • Person:

    How are you doing?

  • Student:

    I'm pretty well. And you?

  • Person:

    Doing OK?

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Students have to meet frequently with advisers to help them stay on track academically and have a plan for after they graduate.

    Graduation rates are tracked over a three-year period, because students often attend part-time. Next year marks the third year for the first cohort of AlamoPROMISE recipients. Administrators say early indicators are pointing in the right direction, despite significant impacts on students' lives from COVID.

    Jaeden Montero has his sights set on the future. He wants to pursue a career in cybersecurity and is confident he will be able to live a comfortable life.

  • Jaeden Montero:

    I would expect to make $70,000 a year, which is more than good enough for me.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    About 13,000 students are eligible for the PROMISE program next fall, and, so far, more than 10,000 have shown an interest and saved their seat.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Hari Sreenivasan in San Antonio, Texas.

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