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Keeping the Promise: Here’s how more Dallas kids are going to college for free
by Maria Medez, Breaking news reporter | July 7, 2019
Just as Jose Alvarez prepared for his first year of college, he was forced to undergo an appendectomy.
His family became burdened with the medical costs, especially since Alvarez lost his job due to his health problems.
But they didn’t agonize over Alvarez’s college tuition. That was already covered through the Dallas County Promise, which helps students pursue a higher education for free.
The relief was a new feeling for Alvarez, a first-generation college student from Grand Prairie who is used to thinking about how his family will make ends meet each month.
“If it wasn’t honestly for the Dallas Promise, I probably wouldn’t be in school right now,” he said in June after wrapping up his first year at El Centro College in downtown Dallas.
A growing promise
The Dallas County Promise launched in 31 low-income high schools in 2017. It guarantees free tuition for students like Alvarez if they pledge to attend a Dallas County Community College or a partner four-year university.
Students who take a pledge apply for federal financial aid and other support. Then the program covers tuition expenses not covered by those efforts. Allies such as the University of North Texas at Dallas, Southern Methodist University and businesses also provide support.
Promise partners work hard to get students involved in the process of seeking financial aid and enrolling in college early on. Many receive Pell Grant money and scholarships.
Then the Promise finds the money for remaining expenses. For students attending Dallas County Community Colleges, DCCCD supplied about $1 million in last-dollar scholarships in the first year of the program.
Now the Promise is rapidly growing. This spring, it worked to pledge 16,200 eligible students from 43 area high schools.
By quickly expanding, the Promise hopes to help more students and their families get greater access to economic mobility, said Eric Ban, the program’s managing director. He noted that only 37% of adults in Dallas County have a post-secondary credential.
“We have to ensure that more of our more vulnerable students have access to our economy, and that access is often through higher education,” said Ban.
In 2020, the Promise hopes to reach about 22,000 students from 57 high schools, Ban said.
More than free tuition
In his senior year of high school, Alvarez was presented with the Promise pledge on an iPad.
Alvarez, along with many of his peers in Grand Prairie High School’s class of 2018, signed the pledge but wasn’t sure what it meant.
Soon he began receiving text messages and emails reminding him to complete his college and financial aid applications.
Those text reminders initially annoyed Alvarez, but now he’s grateful for them. He said this constant support is what helped him get through his first year of college.
“The best part of this program is that you’re able to get help even after people put you on this platform,” said Alvarez, who is studying to get his associate degree and dental hygienist certification. “That’s so comforting, because when I was transitioning from senior year to my first year of college, things were so hard. Things were moving fast.”
The text messages come from the program’s success coaches, who troubleshoot students’ problems with college paperwork or even find transportation or day care to help students with children.
Incoming Promise students Lizehte Reyes-Ruiz and her brother Jaime Reyes met their success coaches at Dallas County Community College’s EduCareer Expo in June. They said they are already getting a flood of text messages.
“It’s good to know I have somebody to help me manage my responsibilities,” said Reyes, who will study computer web programming at North Lake College in Irving.
Alexis Buchanan, another 2019 Promise student, feared she would lose her support after failing to turn in her financial aid application, but a success coach helped her at the college fair.
“I’m so happy I got a second chance,” said Buchanan, who plans to attend El Centro’s nursing program in the fall. “They helped me so much because I was confused on everything. I love them.”
Through this kind of approach, the Dallas County Promise got 57% of its nearly 9,000 pledges in 2018 to actually enroll in college.
Ban acknowledges that more work needs to be done to accomplish the Promise’s goal of getting all pledges to attend college, but he said he’s excited by the results so far.
With the group of Promise students, Dallas County Community Colleges saw a 35% increase in enrollment.
UNT Dallas, which partnered with the Promise program to recruit more lower-income students, saw a 30% enrollment increase.
UNT Dallas offers Promise students their own free tuition guarantee once they transfer from community college, said Stephanie Holley, vice president of student access and success.
“These first two years have been amazing, and it’s just going to continue changing lives,” she said. “I really think it is going to grow because the high schools are now really talking to students about college.”
The Dallas County Promise is modeled after the similar Tennessee Promise, which helped boost statewide college attendance there by 5.9 percentage points within one year of its 2015 launch, according to the Tennessee Higher Education Commission. And 51% of these students have either graduated or are still enrolled in college.
Lawmakers in the state also launched Tennessee Reconnect in 2018 for older adults to go to college, said Richard Locker, a spokesman for the Tennessee Board of Regents, which governs 40 community and technical colleges in that state.
“It’s really changed the conversation around the dinner table from ‘I wish I could go to college’ to ‘I’m going to college,’’ Locker said.
No more excuses
Buchanan, who graduated from Skyline High School, said most of her classmates didn’t think about college before the Promise.
“Many of the kids who had talked about not going to college are now going,” Buchanan said. “It’s a rough area, a rough school, so I’m glad my peers are taking part.”
Alvarez said he wasn’t always sure college was a viable option for him. His older sister and cousins had tried,but none were able to finish their degrees.
The Dallas Morning News began following his journey toward a degree last year. He said the Promise program’s free tuition and guidance left him with no excuses to not attend college — even if that means catching a train or a car ride with his dad at 6 a.m. to make it to class.
“How could you say ‘no’ to something when they’re literally giving you everything?” he asked.
Now he hopes to be the first one in his family to finally get a college degree, becoming a role model for his 6-year-old brother and new Promise students.
“I’m excited to see the new kids come in, and if they need any help, I’ll help them,” Alvarez said.
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