Free college? Who wouldn’t want this?
With costs soaring every year, the Alamo Colleges District’s new “free college” program sounds like a cash-strapped student’s or parent’s dream come true.
It’s a good idea and may be successful, but “free” is more attention-getter than fact.
This fall, ACD rolled out a fresh program to help more graduating high schoolers cover enrollment expenses in career-track programs toward two-year associate degrees or training certificates. It’s called AlamoPROMISE.
In the first year, it’s offered to seniors at 25 public high schools in areas with high poverty, low graduation rates and limited university attendance. Next year, ACD promises to expand to all area public high schools. The students will get up to 60 credit hours of free tuition. Intention and commitment would be a factor, not income.
AlamoPROMISE is designed to enroll more learners in career-specific degree or training programs — healthcare, information technology, skilled manufacturing and teaching — for the kind of vocations where jobs are available, whether students later seek four-year or even graduate degrees.
As for the four-letter word “free,” just as there’s no free lunch, there’s no truly free college. Somebody is paying. A large part of most students’ tuition would come from federal Pell Grants, scholarships and other sources. The College Board estimates nearly one-third of U.S. undergraduate students receive Pell Grants, at a maximum of nearly $6,000 per year – with no repayment. This is a relative benefit.
For University of Texas at San Antonio students, an average full semester’s tuition is around $5,000, and at Trinity University, a semester’s tuition and fees top $20,000. It’s a lot harder to cover those costs with scholarships, and a lot easier to rack up hefty student debt.
Pell Grants are a very big deal for ACD students, though, since the average tuition at their colleges is about $1,200 per semester for a full course load. Federal taxes pay for Department of Education awards like Pell Grants and Texas Public Educational Grants.
AlamoPROMISE is really what’s called an LDS program – a Last Dollar Scholarship — added to whatever financial aid a student is receiving to meet the balance of college expenses. Thus, the word “free.” And, while doing this might seem like a wild extravagance on the part of ACD trustees, in fact, they estimate maybe $1,100 or so per year in costs for each enrollee. If the program keeps growing, ACD folks estimate they could help more than 6,000 students at $7 million a year.
San Antonio and Bexar County taxpayers are also contributing. While tuition and fees brought in around $91 million last year, according to the district’s 2018-2019 annual budget, ACD received $164 million in property-tax revenue for operating expenses.
That’s going up. In September, trustees voted to hold hearings on a recommended 3.36 percent rise in ad valorem property taxes, which translates to about $18 more a year, from $306 to $324, to the district’s share of taxes on a $217,000 home. This past spring, ACD upped tuition fees by $13 per semester hour – which makes plans like AlamoPROMISE even more important.
The district is not the first with a “promise program.” It’s a national trend, and community colleges are jumping on the bandwagon, supported by corporations, charities and local governments eyeballing the benefits for students in a never-ending quest to increase the number of highly qualified workers, which in turn helps attract bigger companies and better jobs. A rising tide lifts all boats.