Free community college 'seals the deal' for many. Scrapping Biden's plan weighs heavily.

·8 min read

SAN ANTONIO — Felicia Lozano, a barista at Starbucks and a full-time student at San Antonio College, still had to “step it up” and scramble to work more hours to cover community college and living costs this year.

Lozano is studying American Sign Language interpreting, which is a three-year program at the college. She covered her first two years with savings from Social Security benefits after her father died when she was 16. But that money is running out, so she asked to work full time at Starbucks.

“It’s really hard,” she said about working and going to school full time. “It’s really drained me completely.”

While Lozano and other Latino students juggle books and bank accounts, President Joe Biden’s plan to make two years of community college tuition and fees free is expected to be dropped, NBC News has reported, to cut the price tag on his social spending package from $3.5 trillion to $1.5 trillion and get support from all Democratic-voting members in the Senate.

Negotiators have debated whether paying tuition and fees goes far enough. Students often must pay other costs, such as transportation and room and board. Some also questioned whether the plan would make any difference for students who already get financial assistance.

Regardless of the fate of the free community college proposal, experts agree that boosting Latino educational achievement is critical if the country is to have a competitive, increasingly Latino workforce and resolve racial and economic inequities.

In 2019, 31 percent of Latinos 25 and older held associate’s degrees or higher, up from 15 percent in 2000, according to the Education Data Initiative. By comparison, 56 percent of non-Hispanic whites held associate’s degrees or higher, up from 44 percent.

"A growing number of jobs in the future will require some form of postsecondary education, but the educational attainment gap between Latinos and Whites could lead to worsening workforce disparities, occupational segregation, and economic inequality," UnidosUS, a Latino advocacy group, said in a report last year on Latinos and higher education.

More than half of Latino college students attend community colleges. They were 27 percent, about 3.2 million, of the 11.8 million students of all backgrounds enrolled in community colleges nationally in 2019, according to the American Association of Community Colleges.

Community colleges’ enrollments dropped by 12 percent last year amid the coronavirus pandemic, with big declines among students of color, according to the College Board.

Backers of Biden's free college plan, which began with President Barack Obama in 2015, say the proposal could transform how the country pays for college education.

“Too much of the burden rests on families, and college costs just keep rising. America’s College Plan promises zero dollars today, zero dollars 10 years from today and zero dollars forever,” said Peter Granville, a senior policy analyst at The Century Foundation, a progressive think tank and champion of the America's Promise Plan.

Isabella Guerrero, 18, is in her first year at San Antonio College. She hopes to be an architect one day. She lives with her mother, who is divorced from her father. Child support payments stopped when she turned 18, she said.

Although her mother had told her that she would “do all in her power” to help her if she wanted to start her college career at a four-year college or university, Guerrero knew that would be difficult with her mom's modest salary.

Because she gets financial aid, Guerrero said, a free community college program might not help her unless she was able to continue using some of her financial aid to help buy food and pay for other costs at home, she said.

A free college program would have benefited her mother, who could have used the money when she was studying nursing and teaching to pay for child care for Guerrero.

“It probably would have helped her a lot, because even before I went to elementary school, she was a single mother and had to take me to her classes,” she said.

Image:  Isabela Guerrero (Suzanne Gamboa / NBC News)
Image: Isabela Guerrero (Suzanne Gamboa / NBC News)

At the start of negotiations, the House was considering a plan that would pay the full tuition and fees for two years in states that choose to participate. States’ share of the costs would increase by 5 percentage points a year until the fifth year, when the federal-state division would be 80 percent to 20 percent. Students without permanent legal status would be eligible.

Deborah Santiago, a co-founder and the CEO of Excelencia in Education, a Latino education advocacy group, said the prospect of free college sends a strong message to students with trepidation about attending.

At the same time, Santiago said, a free tuition and fees plan is not a "silver bullet" that guarantees Latino enrollment and more importantly, completion.

“Tuition is not the issue for many Latino low-income students. It’s really child care, transportation," Santiago said, citing some of the costs that add up for students. "The cost of attendance is more than tuition and fees, and if free college doesn’t include that, we might be hampering our students, rather than helping them.”

‘It’s what seals the deal’

Hoping to boost the education and competitiveness of its workforce, the Alamo Colleges District, made up of San Antonio College and four other community colleges in the area, launched AlamoPROMISE in 2019 after officials visited Tennessee and Dallas, which have similar locally run free college programs.

More than 50 percent of students attending these institutions in the Alamo district are eligible for financial aid.

AlamoPROMISE is what is known as a last-dollar program — it pays tuition and fees that aren't covered by financial aid and scholarships.

Many students who get full financial aid from the federal government might not get AlamoPROMISE assistance, but the program picks up the full cost for middle-income or working-class families that don’t get full grants or qualify for Pell grants, said Mike Flores, chancellor of the Alamo Colleges District.

There are similar programs in 18 other states, Granville said.

In the first class helped by AlamoPROMISE, 92 percent of the students were students of color and came from schools where fewer than half were going to college at all, Flores said.

Students in the program are 64 percent Latino, 8 percent African American and 4 percent Asian American, Flores said.

To encourage San Antonio students to sign up for the program and to enroll in college, the Alamo Colleges District held a virtual and an in-person pep rally encouraging students to “save their seat” and assured them of community support.

The organizers of the Dallas and Tennessee programs had told them that there was power in telling parents and students that tuition and fees would be paid.

"It's what seals the deal for students," Flores said.

Additional support services, higher attendance

The 25 high-poverty high schools the district targeted increased their college enrollments by up to 20 percent in the first year, Flores said.

“Some of the students may qualify for financial aid, but I think the way it is framed, and I think it’s the additional support services that are provided to Promise students, that kind of excites them, and they signed up,” Flores said.

Allen Friesenhahn, 18, is in his first year studying computer programming at San Antonio College.

His father is a longtime manager at Texas’ major grocery chain, H-E-B, and his mother is a self-employed house cleaner. His parents paid for some of his older sister’s education.

He attended one of the high schools that has been part of the AlamoPROMISE program.

“That’s how I’m currently affording it. I think if everyone was able to get that, I think it would broaden the education for everyone, because not everyone can afford it,” said Friesenhahn, who is Latino.

All schools in the Alamo Colleges District have student advocacy centers that help students get food, clothing and other assistance.

The district has raised more than $14 million for AlamoPROMISE and plans to expand the program to other high schools.

Flores said the district's research found that gross domestic product in San Antonio and Bexar County would rise by 1 percent over the first five years of the program.

"The American Community Survey, the census, gave San Antonio in 2018 the highest urban poverty rate in the nation, and that really is tied to educational attainment levels," Flores said, "and we know a credential can change the trajectory of a family."

Image: Allen Friesenhahan (Suzanne Gamboa / NBC News)
Image: Allen Friesenhahan (Suzanne Gamboa / NBC News)

Serenity Gonzalez, 19, is in her second year studying music at San Antonio College.

She had dreamed of studying opera at Carnegie Mellon University or Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, but she has curbed that dream because of costs.

Gonzalez hopes that with the money she has saved by studying her first two years at San Antonio College, she will be able to afford enroll in the music program at the University of Texas at Austin.

Gonzalez has had difficulty getting all the documents and information she needs to apply for federal financial aid, a requirement for AlamoPROMISE assistance.

So she paid for her first year herself. At the end of her first semester, AlamoPROMISE refunded those costs and paid for two more semesters. She still faces challenges to get federal financial aid, so she isn’t sure whether she will get help for the coming semester.

“For the next semester, I will have to pay out of my own pocket,” Gonzalez said. She works part time and has a scholarship that helps, but she will probably have to add more hours to afford costs.

“It’s kind of hard going to school full time and doing part-time work,” she said.

Two years of free college, she said, “would have made it so much easier.”

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