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Alamo Colleges Delays Expanding Eligibility For PROMISE Scholarship Amid Pandemic

Alamo Colleges lit up the word "Promise" in colored lights on the stage of Jefferson High School's auditorium Oct. 2, 2019 for the launch of the AlamoPROMISE free tuition program.
File Photo | Camille Phillips | Texas Public Radio

The second cohort of AlamoPROMISE scholarship recipients will come from the same 25 high schools as the first cohort, which enrolled in college this fall.

The Alamo Colleges District has delayed plans to make all of Bexar County’s traditional public schools eligible for the free tuition program out of concern that the economic downturn could make it more difficult to support the additional cost.

“We have to be mindful of the sustainability of the program and what that means when we add additional cohorts, additional schools, when we have a little bit of uncertainty in our funding outlook,” said Stephanie Vasquez, the chief program officer for AlamoPROMISE in an interview.

Vasquez said the decision to limit eligibility to the county’s 25 lowest-income high schools for a second year was a “strategic” plan to make the best use possible of the resources available, including the capacity for her staff to build partnerships with additional school districts while everyone is under the strain of the pandemic.

“We're in the middle of taking all of our operations online (and) our high school partners have (also) had to shift in operations,” Vasquez said.

During the community college system’s September board meeting, Chancellor Mike Flores said Alamo Colleges will be in a better position to decide whether it is safe to expand by early next year.

“A lot of things are in flux,” Flores told trustees. “COVID has changed the philanthropic focus at least for this year.”

However, Flores said donors remain committed to the Promise program and have asked the community college district’s foundation to check back in with them in late fall.

The City of San Antonio recently approved $1.1 million for AlamoPROMISE program in the fiscal year 2021 budget, but a similar request from the Bexar County Commissioners Court has not yet been approved.

“One of the nice early indicators of financial support was the $4.5 million that was raised from philanthropy (before the start of the pandemic),” Flores said. “For the first five years we projected that we would need actually $5 million, and we were able to raise almost the first five years in the first year.”

“Obviously there’s going to be an effect, and it’s not going to be as glorious as we anticipated, and that’s fine as long as we have good structures in place that will get this first cohort to be successful,” Trustee Roberto Zárate said. “After that, then I think we’ve got ourselves a good basis on which to move forward and solicit more contributions and commitments to this program.”

State and federal grants cover most of the cost for students who are currently eligible for AlamoPROMISE because the high schools are located in lower-income neighborhoods.

The remaining 20 traditional public high schools in Bexar County will likely be more expensive for the Promise program to support because many of the students’ family incomes are too high to qualify for other state and federal grants.

When the program was first announced in 2019, Chancellor Flores said Alamo Colleges wanted to offer the scholarship to all students regardless of income to help fill in the gap between what families can afford and how much college costs.

“Working-class youth and middle-income youth may not qualify for need-based aid, but they struggle just the same with their parents or family members to be able to afford a college education,” Flores said at the time.

Alamo Colleges originally planned to consider making charter school and private school graduates eligible for AlamoPROMISE after all 45 of the county’s traditional public high schools.

Trustee Jose Macias Jr. asked the chancellor to consider including some charter schools sooner when he makes a recommendation for increasing the number of schools eligible next year.

“Not all charter schools are the same. I worked for some that really helped the economically disadvantaged,” Macias said. “So, there are pockets of resources that are needed to be allocated (to charter schools).”

The Alamo Colleges District is anticipating possible cuts in state funding for higher education during the next legislative session, which would hurt the community college system’s budget. On the other hand, a proposition on the November ballot to fund a workforce training program would help the Alamo Colleges’ budget if approved.