Competing Against Poverty And Winning

Administration December 2022 PREMIUM
The Alamo College District is the largest Hispanic-serving educational system, college or university in Texas.

Mike Flores recalls sitting in the back of college classrooms as a young boy growing up in the 1970s, having been brought there by his mother, who, despite limited childcare options, was determined to earn a college degree. Both Flores’ mother and father were raised in migrant farmer households. “Survival for both of their families really meant traveling as migrants,” says Flores, the first Hispanic Chancellor of the Alamo Colleges District in Texas.

Flores’ parents worked on farms throughout the mid-west stream, picking potatoes in Idaho and a variety of crops in Michigan. His father also worked in canaries on the west coast, sending much of the money he earned back home to support his younger siblings. Both his parents realized their best path out of such difficult lives was through education, so they enrolled in college and sought degrees. His father took advantage of the GI Bill to earn his master’s degree, and his mother earned her bachelor’s while raising Flores and working. “(My parents were) first-generation college students and those were informative years and experiences for me, going with my mom to class and watching her graduate from college when I was in elementary school,” says Flores.

In many ways, his formative experiences are similar to those of today’s Alamo students. When he addresses students, especially those who are simultaneously attending classes and raising a family, he tells them, “I am your children. All of you, if you are first-generation college students, I am your son or daughter,” says Flores.

Through the example his parents set, Flores witnessed firsthand how a college education can positively affect the trajectory of an entire family. Since becoming Alamo’s Chancellor five years ago, Flores has been on a mission to eliminate poverty through education. “Looking at the city of San Antonio, the challenge within our community is having enough individuals with credentials, with a college certification or degree,” says Flores.

To ensure more individuals earn a certificate or degree, Alamo college offers the PROMISE program, which helps Alamo students finance their degree. “PROMISE tells high school seniors in San Antonio and Bexar county that we believe in you, and we’re going to support you for up to three years so you can gain a certification or an associate’s degree, or transfer to a university,” says Flores.

PROMISE is a partnership that relies on a blend of private gifts, public support, monies from Alamo colleges, and federal financial aid for funding. Alamo’s five colleges are competing against poverty, Flores says. While academically capable of earning a degree, students in Alamo’s district, whether they are 18 or 38 years old, have to make difficult decisions. Many, for example, must decide whether to work fewer hours so they can attend school. Flores says it comes down to weighing the costs attributable to that decision. “It’s not only paying the tuition; it’s also attending class, doing homework, doing additional assignments. Those hours are hours the student is not working and wages that the student is not earning and contributing to their household,” says Flores.

Despite facing an array of significant obstacles, Alamo students are succeeding, as more and more within the District’s six counties are earning credentials and degrees. About 12,000 students graduate annually from Alamo colleges and about 18,000 transfer to four-year schools each year. “PROMISE shows the value of a credential, and the city of San Antonio has invested up to 200 million dollars in job-training programs, in which we are the biggest training providers. I definitely think we are making headway and seeing serious improvement in the conversation within the community about the value of a credential, and the different ways we can stand behind that,” says Flores.

Once a bright, academically capable student clears the financial hurdle and enrolls in one of Alamo’s colleges, the district offers wrap-around services designed to eliminate obstacles outside the classroom. Alamo’s Student Advocacy Center provides assistance through a food pantry, a benefits navigator, and a United Way helpline that connects students to community resources and agencies. Health clinics provide low-cost or no-cost healthcare. “The United Way helpline fielded over 9,000 calls this past year… and the food bank provided over 1.3 million pounds of food since 2021,” says Flores.

The Alamo District serves about 65,000 students per semester and about 100,000 students in a calendar year, of which 65 percent are Hispanic. In 2018 the district won the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, the nation’s highest Presidential honor for performance excellence through innovation, improvement, and visionary leadership. “For us, that really means that we are best in class. The win is not just a win for Alamo colleges, but it’s our community’s win,” says Flores. Alamo was the first community college system in the United States to ever win this award and one of the few in higher education to receive it, says Flores.

Flores innovates by creating more effective ways to serve the needs of his students and by supporting faculty, staff, and community. The Student Advocacy Centers are a prime example of such innovation. “Malcolm Baldrige provided us with a model and a protocol to stand up and pilot things that we were able to bring to scale across the whole district, and not only positively impact students at one college, but be able to positively impact students at all five colleges,” says Flores.

The Alamo College District is the largest Hispanic-serving educational system, college or university in Texas. Its students are among the most successful in the United States, at a time of increasing diversity. “Demographics can determine destiny and what Alamo students show is that their ability determines their destiny. When provided with the right support services and challenged, our students rise to the occasion,” says Flores. “Record numbers graduate and record numbers transfer,” he adds. 

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