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A program that helps Dallas students attend college for free is struggling to keep them on track

More students are choosing work over school as the pandemic strains finances.

Crystal Garza, 19, was unsure about what life would look like for her after high school, and the pandemic made deciding on college even harder.

Garza did not know whether she should go into community college or risk running into financial troubles at a four-year university. But in her senior year, she decided to take a pledge that put her on track to enroll at Dallas College last fall.

Garza participated in the Dallas County Promise, a partnership that helps cover costs for students from 57 area high schools to attend the community college for two years. That support was the best option for her, allowing her to attend school and work to help her mom, she said.

“I felt like that was like one of the best choices I’ve made. ... I do want the best of things to happen to me, to happen to my family,” said Garza, who plans to transfer to one of the four-year universities that partners with the Promise to offer students scholarships and other support.

But the program that helps students like Garza go to college for free is struggling to keep them enrolled during the pandemic.

The Dallas County Promise had 89% of this year’s eligible seniors sign on to its pledge by the end of March. That was down from 99% who signed on last year. And the program had seen an 8% drop in students who enrolled in college in the fall compared with fall 2019.

Going to community college — even for free — was not an option for many students this past year, said Katrina James, the Promise’s managing director.

Some students couldn’t afford it despite the help as they had to support themselves or others — especially as many service-industry jobs where college students tend to find work were hurt. Others couldn’t adjust to a virtual experience when nearly all classes were shifted online.

“They make the difficult choice that they need to help put food on their family’s tables and sometimes those work hours are during the day,” James said.

The Promise, started by Dallas College and education nonprofit Commit in 2018, provides a last-dollar scholarship to students covering the final cost after financial aid is applied, regardless of their income level or grades. (Todd Williams, chairman and CEO of Commit, supports the DMN Education Lab through the Todd A. Williams Family Foundation.)

The Promise’s third cohort last year had about 21,000 seniors taking the program’s pledge. During its first year, the program worked with 31 high schools where 9,300 students signed on to start college the fall after graduation, to keep a GPA of 2.0 or higher and to complete financial aid applications each year.

Getting the students to fill out the complicated federal or state financial aid forms was a challenge from the beginning. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, is essential since the Promise covers the gap that financial aid does not fill.

Before the pandemic, success coaches from the Promise could help 25 to 50 families who would gather at a high school in one night. Now, they are able to guide only about a dozen families through Zoom.

Some students’ families are uncomfortable sharing their situations through a screen, especially those who have family members who are unauthorized immigrants, James said.

“We try to be very, very sensitive to family’s individual circumstances,” James said. “It’s easier to build the relationships to help families feel more comfortable with that when you can be in person.”

Alfredo Alcoser, 17, took the Promise’s pledge and started school at Dallas College this spring. But some of his friends did not pursue college after graduating from North Garland High School.

As a first-generation college student, his success coach from the Promise was essential in navigating financial aid. But now he struggles with online classes because he’s easily distracted at home. He misses having a professor come up to his desk to ensure he understands what is being taught.

“I really expected it to be much different,” Alcoser said. “I was expecting it to be like going to the campus, seeing a lot of other friends and being in class learning with a teacher.”

The Dallas program isn’t alone in its struggles.

The Center for Community College Student Engagement — based out of the University of Texas — released a study in March examining the pandemic’s impact on about 5,200 freshmen across 38 schools in the United States, six of which are in Texas.

Students were struggling with reliable internet access, paying for school and keeping up with classes due to the lack of child care, according to the study’s findings.

And attending college was harder for women and students from marginalized communities as 43% of female students caring for children reported that their financial situation was worse than before the pandemic, compared to 34% of males in similar circumstances.

Meanwhile, Native American, Black and Hispanic students were more likely to report having trouble keeping up with their coursework due to a lack of child care than white students were, according to the study.

While these challenges are not new for community college students, they have been exacerbated in the past year as other unique barriers simultaneously appeared before them during the pandemic, said Linda García, the center’s executive director. She noted that the report does not include students who did not start or return to school.

“Students don’t come to us to fail,” Garcia said. “They need guidance, and they are saying that. It’s important that we’ve listened to them to help them get to the finish line.”

Nationally, enrollment at community colleges has declined by nearly 10% from last spring, making them the “worst-hit sector” in higher education, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Texas saw an 8% drop in enrollment for public two-year colleges, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

“We don’t know the long-term impact. ... But we do believe that students, they’re gonna need more support than ever,” García said. “They needed that before the pandemic. Now it’s just been amplified.”

So educators are working to create connections with students.

Amarillo College, for example, launched a campaign in which every employee had a list of five to 10 students whom they texted, called or emailed every week for routine check-ins on their studies and overall well-being.

President Russell Lowery-Hart said his Amarillo school saw double the amount of students who were dealing with increased tensions. While distributing emergency aid in January, the college identified 101 students who were newly homeless.

The school’s campaign to maintain personal contact with students helped reduce withdrawal rates by 34% during the pandemic, Lowery-Hart said.

Officials from the Promise say they are working to reach out to students who haven’t taken the pledge or who need other support to stay on track. But next steps will largely depend on how the pandemic plays out in the coming months as it will drive students’ decisions.

“I can’t necessarily say what things will look like in the future because we’re not sure what percentage of students will still be virtual versus in-person, and that very much drives the kind of efforts that we’ll take,” James said.

The DMN Education Lab deepens the coverage and conversation about urgent education issues critical to the future of North Texas.

The DMN Education Lab is a community-funded journalism initiative, with support from The Beck Group, Bobby and Lottye Lyle, The Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Dallas Regional Chamber, Deedie Rose, The Meadows Foundation, Solutions Journalism Network, Southern Methodist University and Todd A. Williams Family Foundation. The Dallas Morning News retains full editorial control of the Education Lab’s journalism.

Valeria Olivares, Education Lab Reporting Fellow. Valeria is a reporter for The Dallas Morning News Education Lab focusing on higher education. She was born in El Paso, but was raised across the border in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. She has previously interned at The San Antonio Express-News and The Texas Tribune. She loves internet culture and green tea-flavored sweets.

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