Free college programs a promise within the budget of many cities

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My oldest daughter begins ninth grade this month, which means I’ve entered the parental demographic officially known as the “Sweet mother of mercy, how does anyone afford to pay for their kids’ college?” segment.

Some of my parent-friends will only join this demographic when their own kid enters 12th grade. But I’m forward-thinking about money, so I expect to breathe deeply into this paper bag here, continuously, for the next four years.

Against what seems like unrelenting bad news about the rising cost of college education comes a new trend from cities and counties with a seemingly radical, yet actually practical, idea: Let’s make community college — an associate degree or the first two years toward a bachelor’s degree — free.

In Texas, Dallas County Community College District first began a “Promise” program a few years ago for low- and medium-income families. The promise is that families can access “last dollar” funding to make college affordable or even free. That means that after federal and state tuition grants for qualifying families, the district will make up any difference. Two years of college in Dallas is affordable and free.

Dallas enrolled its first cohort in fall 2018. Eric Ban, the managing director of Dallas Promise, reports a 35 percent uptick in the district’s enrollment following the rollout, a higher retention rate from one semester to the next and a 6 percent increase in enrollment by students from the highest-poverty high schools in Dallas County.

Free community college is not a small experiment happening in a few cities but a nationwide trend. Ban says his program is working with other major cities in Texas, including Houston, Fort Worth and Austin.

In San Antonio, where I live, we’re about to embark on the same mission. Mike Flores, chancellor of Alamo Colleges District, has studied the Dallas County example, as well as trailblazers in Knoxville, Tenn. His Alamo Promise plan, for which the district is seeking budgetary support from the city and county this month, aims to boost college enrollment and college completion rates while providing gap funding to families who need it.

Based on the Alamo Promise presentation, the shocking financial news is how affordable this program is. The first year would cost city and county budgets just over $300,000 each. Even fully ramped up by year five, the Alamo Promise program would cost $7.5 million in combined city and county funds while serving an additional estimated 6,350 students.

For those of you who are quick at math, you’ll notice the net local public cost per additional student is just over $1,100. What fresh financial wizardry is this? That seems way too low!

I’ll let you in on the magic trick. The Alamo Promise plan — like the Dallas and Knoxville plans — leverages federal and state dollars to the maximum. It pays for the “last dollar” needed by families, who already will have qualified for up to $6,000 in federal Pell Grants and Texas Public Education Grant money. By doing this, the community colleges can legitimately tell prospective high school graduates: “College is free. Please apply.”

Mayor Ron Nirenberg says City Council is on track to approve funding for Alamo Promise.

Says Nirenberg: “The plans we are working on are to identify funding that will be sustainable and allow Alamo Promise to be perpetual. It will take commitment from the public and private sector, but even at full flight, its relative expense is pennies compared to investments we made as a community routinely.”

A key point of announcing free community college in Dallas, San Antonio and other cities is a clear signal. Specifically, they are sending a message to low- and middle- income families that funds are available, that this is doable, and that the city, county and community colleges will make up a family’s funding gap.

A major barrier to a college education is money — both the reality and the perception of high costs.

The reality is that a four-year college education has become incredibly expensive to pay for, either outright or through crushing student loans.

Perception also matters because high school students and parents look at the stated price of college and just give up early because of the cost.

My kids’ public school district, one of the Alamo Promise’s target districts, scored graduates at 34 percent “College Ready” in the 2017-18 school year, according to the Texas Education Agency.

To improve these rates, high school graduates need to see a viable financial path to enrolling in and graduating from college.

Ban, Flores and Nirenberg all describe the Promise programs as a workforce-readiness investment. In Dallas, 37 percent of adults have postsecondary degrees, while 65 percent of jobs require one. Among Dallas County high school graduates, only 28 percent achieve a college degree. Clearly, completion rates need to improve to fill all these jobs.

“Whether or not San Antonio competes in that 21st century landscape depends on ensuring our workforce is a capable and available workforce, equipped with skills to meet the demand of the jobs we seek to grow and attract,” Nirenberg says.

Flores points to the lifetime annual boost of $9,400 per year in income for graduates who earn a degree.

Clearly, as ambitious as free community college sounds, it’s only the beginning. In an ideal world, a two-year associate degree would be the steppingstone to a four-year degree. Many higher-paid jobs require a four-year degree; maybe that will move within reach with this free on-ramp for families who wouldn’t otherwise consider it.

Michael Taylor is a columnist for the San Antonio Express-News and author of “The Financial Rules For New College Graduates.” |

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