Podcasts

Access > Affordability

The Dallas County Promise was launched this year as an ambitious effort to dramatically increase the number of high school graduates who earn a college degree or certificate. But don't call the Promise just a scholarship, because making college affordable isn't the biggest obstacle to overcome to create access for students who are often the first in their family to attend college.

29 June 2018

Between the debates on tax policy, the struggles for racial equity, and arguments about Confederate generals, this show can, admittedly, get a little heavy.  So as the school year comes to a close, let’s lighten the mood a bit.

Let’s give one big massive applause for the class of 2018.

This is Adamson High School Senior Melanie Orellana.

And I’m planning to go to El Centro for fashion design, and then go to Baylor and get my master’s for fashion design as well.

Melanie’s hard work earned her the seventh highest GPA in her class, and the chance to address them all at Adamson’s college-signing day.

We have accomplished a lot, but each of us has bigger plans to pursue.  Today is important because we will declare our plans for the future, for the next chapter of our lives. No matter what the plan is, be proud of it, and be proud of each other.  Today is a day to celebrate.

Melanie is a member of the first cohort of students taking part of the Dallas County Promise, an initiative at 31 high schools across the county providing a completely tuition-free pathway to an industry certification, Associate’s, or Bachelor’s degree, through a partnership with Dallas County Community College District, the University of North Texas at Dallas, and my alma mater, Southern Methodist University.

Melanie was incredibly fortunate to have graduated at the right place and time to take advantage of this brand new endeavor, but her road to college was still far from easy.  As it turns out, affordability is just one factor in a host of barriers restricting access to higher education for our students who need, and want it, the most.

So I spoke with four college advisors, three college students, two college-bound seniors, and one college president to find out our part as a community in removing those roadblocks, and how we can all contribute to a college-going culture.

I’m Joshua Kumler, and this is the Miseducation of Dallas County, powered by Commit.

Theme

Daniel Grey: The college access system is so nuanced now. It. It's so nuanced. It's so… man, there's so many layers to it.

David Deggs: There's so much that needs to happen in schools today to help students prepare for college and career.

Marcia Page: It's quite a- it's quite a situation.

Sara Urquidez: I don't think that the college process as it stands today is intuitive for anyone.

Marcia: And it's really interesting even parents that graduated from college years ago don't quite understand the system today.

Daniel: It's, it's such a different- It is so much different. I remember when I applied to school, and even when I applied to get my master's, like, it didn't feel this difficult.

Sara: Wealth or lack thereof doesn't equal knowledge about the college process. We can't assume that anybody understands or knows anything about this process. It's difficult for even educated families to navigate. They need access to knowledgeable and quality professionals to be able to navigate the systems that the higher education system has put in place.

Daniel: My name is Daniel Grey, I'm the senior director of Road to College at Uplift Education.

David: I'm David Deggs. I'm the executive director of college access programs at SMU.

Marcia: My name is Marcia Page and I'm the president and CEO of Education is Freedom.

Sara: And my name is Sara Urquidez and I'm the executive director of the Academic Success Program. We are a college access program in 18 Dallas area high schools and provide expert college counseling to 100 percent of the students on the campuses that we serve.  It encompasses everything from sharing information, sharing knowledge with everybody from 9th through 12th graders to parents to faculty and staff to principals and trying to educate them about this thing that we call the college process that encompasses everything from test prep,

David: SAT scores have a lot to do with scholarships that are awarded to students.

Sara: course selection,

David: We support students taking advanced placement courses

Sara: being on track to graduate with a transcript that colleges are looking for,

David: we also encourage them to take dual credit courses through Dallas County Community College so that they can also earn college credit that way as well.

Marcia: We’ll provide college visits, online as well as in person. We also expose them to military options as well, and technical schools and two year colleges, so we just provide them with an array of what the possibilities are. Then it’s the application process.

Sara: putting together applications, essays, all of the essays, and completing financial aid paperwork, all of the financial paperwork,

Marcia: filling out the FAFSA form, or if they're undocumented it’s the TASFA form,

Sara: Verification, which is essentially where the Department of Ed flags students to provide additional information about their family situation,

Marcia: Requesting more and more documents to substantiate the dollar amount, they're looking to see if the parents can actually provide more money then they're saying,

Sara: And it's always been considered to be random. This past summer we had heard from the IRS that the Department of Ed was talking about going to every two out of three students being selected for verification. And by October 15th our numbers had surged. Over 80 percent of our students were being flagged for verification. And you could definitely tell that it was income specific and targeted. There was nothing random about it.

Marcia: Absolutely. Our verification request has probably gone up about 40 percent.

David: And I would echo what other counselors have experienced. We see it as well.

Sara: There's a number of institutional forms that have to be completed that ask questions about who you live with, how you pay your bills, how much your bills are. They also want copies of tax returns, copies of W-2s. A tax transcript from the IRS. If a family does not file, they need a verification of non-filing.

Marcia: So when you think about time-consuming things, these activities take you away from the crucial conversations that you need to have with students.

Sara: So it's a very cumbersome process that we're asking of families and students with very little knowledge about what any of this stuff means.

David: Without doing that, they stand the risk of losing a lot of money, or the money would be delayed. And, and that can be just as as tough on them as not getting the money at all.

Sara: I have a student this year that their mom worked for a pawnshop, received a W-2, went and did her taxes. She's since lost the W-2. We can't find it. The colleges continue to ask for it. She's called her previous employer and asked for a copy. They're under no obligation to provide it. They already provided it once. They're not going to provide it again. And so the kid is stuck in the middle saying “what do I do now? I've done everything I was supposed to do.” And so it's very invasive. When I talk to adults and financial aid officers I try and help them understand that verification is really asking students to prove how poor they really are, and this is, I think, a lot of times the first time that they even realize that fact, because these questions are so invasive and personal.

Marcia: Once that's done, then we start looking at scholarships and grants and help them figure out how they can successfully make themselves financially able to do that. Once that's done, OK, now you have to get transcripts.

Sara:  helping students with deposits or getting deposits waived and ultimately sending them off to college. And the work doesn't stop when school gets out. The idea that kids are going to successfully navigate everything to get to college over the summer with no adult assistance from someone who understands what's going on is a little bit crazy if you stop and think about it.

David: A lot of our students, like myself, are potential first generation college students. And so our first generation college students, they have to look for somebody outside of the immediate family that can help them prepare for the transition to college.

Sara: our students really needed assistance in registering for orientation. If they didn't go to orientation, how are they selecting their classes, how are they registering for their classes.

David: how colleges work, how college classes are structured, what's a major, what's a minor, what's a- what's a credit hour.  

Sara: A lot of them have never had access to a writing center. They don't know what that is. They don't understand that there's tutoring available, so, helping them get prepared and knowing which offices they need to go find. Once they get to college, how do you deal with a roommate? How do you deal with the conflict of having a roommate? How are you getting stuff for your dorm?

Daniel: There's just a lack of knowledge within a lot of places for, for just what school means, what university means, what going to college means.  And I think those are built in from like years and years and years of lacking of opportunity, lacking of access.

Marcia: There's a lot of social-emotional baggage that the students take to school with them.

Sara: I think we take it for granted that these kids are automatically going to show up. During my first year as a college adviser I was finishing up sending final transcripts in June after the kids had gotten out and one of my students showed up and asked me how she was supposed to get to Boston. I told her “well, you can fly or you can drive with your parents” and driving wasn't an option. So we started looking at flights and then there was the realization that she didn't have access to a credit card to be able to pay for a plane ticket. It had never crossed my mind, and it was that realization that we can't take anything for granted in helping make sure these kids get to college. And it really is on the adults involved to help make sure that they have a plan in place for how they're going to get there. It doesn't end just because they graduate from high school.

Daniel: We'll have alumni counselors that'll actually be based at local universities. They'll work directly with them and I’ll also work directly with our students that are at the two-years as well to help them reach whatever those goals may be. So if those are transferring to a four year, we want to be there to help them with that.  If those goals are really more around finding a certificate program that helps them be successful, then we want to do that as well too. If the student had questions just about, I'm not sure if I feel like I belong here, I'm not sure if I understand what's going on, the alumni counselor can really do a lot of work to help them understand that yeah, they got into that school for reason. That imposter syndrome that you're feeling isn't necessarily something that you should be feeling, but you have the ability, you have the talent. You can be successful. You just have to make sure that you kind of push yourself to get to that point. But finding out where the gaps are and where the spaces are that we can be really supportive and really kind of align our support systems with what they have so that students are getting kind of a full wraparound.

Sara: We are trying to help them find their career path and come back to Dallas and be great leaders, and so I think it's more important than ever to have knowledgeable professionals in front of these students because it really does take an expert to help students navigate this process and find an option that is affordable to them and that's something that I don't think that we talk about enough. We don't start the conversation early enough, anywhere. But for some students the womb isn't early enough to start this process and to start talking about it and start thinking about it. That is something that we need to make a priority if we're not going to simplify the process.

David: Everybody who works in K-12 education should be a college advocate, and should be all about students being prepared for college and career.  If you decide to start to be college-ready at the end of your sophomore year of high school, you're up against a pretty, pretty big challenge.

Jose Alvarez: I had to sign up for summer classes. My mom works 24/7. My dad works 24/7. At the moment, I was 16 years old and I couldn't drive. I couldn't do anything like that. Uber didn't exist back there.  So it was kind of hard for me to travel. So I ended up running to South Grand Prairie High School, which is 5.9 miles away from here. And, well good thing I had gone out of cross-country, so I was in somewhat of good shape. And yeah, that's how I ended up learning all about college. The first thing that they get you to tell them is “What are your five top choices?” And I'm here like “I don't even have one. So let's work with that.” I learned a lot about college there.  They told me there was many possibilities for me to get- because nobody has money to pay for college, you know? Nobody in Grand Prairie ISD has the money for that. But there's always possibility for a lot of things. So that's how I got fired up for it, because I wanted my community to grow and the community of my school to grow- And that's why I also became class president because I wanted to change the atmosphere at my school, not only in the spirit, but in what people said about us. Hello, my name is Jose Alvarez. I am a graduate from Grand Prairie high school and I am 18 years old at the moment. It was definitely hard, because like I said the atmosphere was not there.  There were teachers who were willing to help, but the students are the ones who I wanted to focus on. So you can have as much teacher support, but if you don't have the student support and if you don't have the student’s attention then what are you going to do with it? The Dallas Promise definitely came in handy, because obviously a lot of kids were not planning to go to college, a lot of kids- from the way I see it and my viewpoint, unless you were top 10 percent or unless you were one through ten, you really weren't planning to go to college. Surprisingly, a lot of students ended up going to wanting to go to college once we started getting the atmosphere going. My other goal was to focus on students who were just the ones that you saw that had potential, but they didn't really know where to start. And yes it was a lot harder, because we- you know, kids ask questions, “well, where do I go do this? Where do I go do that? What's TASFA? What's FAFSA? When does that open up?” and I'm like “Sister, it opened two months ago. So what are we going to do about it?” But it was kind of hard because it was one student, and then one teacher.

Marcia: 450 to 1 for counselors. That's unheard of. What kind of true support and advising can you do with those numbers?

Jose: We were kind of like, have you ever seen those people that ride in their bikes and talk to you about the Bible and stuff like that? Well that was us. We talked to you about college, and we went around to students and were like “Hey, so what do you need help with, where are you going to go?” And we would go help our friends about it. And they would just love hearing about college, and seeing their face light up talking about, you know, them making a change, and you hear everyday stories about students who can barely pay their rent, who work themselves, you know, from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. when school ends, plus after school activities, then they go to work. It's pretty crazy, right? I had a friend who used to work from 4:00 all the way ‘til 12, woke up at 5:00, got her little brother and sister ready. And that's what motivated her. And it gets kind of hard. But you know what, a person that wants to have a change in their life and start a chain reaction with their family, with their community, with the people who's around them, will make the time and will make the effort.

Marcia: If you have two parents that live in the household and one or both of them work and they do their taxes every year and they haven't been audited and they're willing to give them up very easily. There’s no problem.  No problem. In 70 percent of our cases, that is not the issue. We have Grandparents that don't have legal authority, so they can't do a government form. We have undocumented parents that are afraid, they ask you, “are you giving this data to the government?” We say yes. Not gonna do it. We have other parents that say: “Look at all the people that are stealing personal information off the internet, is this going on the Internet? They can steal our identity. Not going to give it to you.” You have people that don't do taxes, don't do forms, you have adopted, you have homeless, you have- Most of our kids, it's a very unique situation when you start trying to fill out a federal document.

Jose: I've been in that situation with some of my friends and they were really really scared about getting stuff done. Their parents wouldn't even come to TASFA or FAFSA nights because they were scared to give, you know, things away for the government. But there's always something, there's always an answer, and that answer was the Dallas Promise which came in handy for a lot of us. A lot of our parents actually even came to meetings and left thinking “wow, this is completely fake. They're not going to pay for your college. You know, they're not going to- like this is not real.” That was some of their reactions, and it was kind of hard to get them out of that sense of- that mindset. But it's all about informing their parents and educating each other.

Marcia: It really all depends on the relationship that my advisor has set up with the student. And thus, the parents.  And that's why so much of our time is spent building that relationship and having them trust us. And that's pretty much all we can say. Trust I understand your fear.  But this isn't about you, parent. It's about your son or daughter. We work with different cultures, right? And everybody likes to paint them, they're all poor so they all have the same type of issues, and that's not true. So you have your Hispanic culture that has unique requirements, you have your African-American culture that has your unique- you have immigrants that are from Burma, Nigeria which are a whole different set of interesting scenarios and cultures and thoughts about how our system works. So there's no generic response.

Nahdyiel: My name is Nahdyiel Molina. I'm a senior here at Paul Quinn College. My mom and dad live in New York, my grandparents live in Puerto Rico, so when it first came up for them, me leaving to come here, they were totally against it. Yeah. It's hard for them to ask for help or it's hard for them to listen to other people and what they believe in, and it’s nothing, nothing I blame on my parents, it’s just, you know, we're in a new era and you know, it just, it's just something that they had to, had to understand, you know, I had to make the decision to better myself. I told President Sorrell that, and he had some other business, he was in New York, he’s like, you know, might as well just talk to them, you know? And then I was like, hey, you think you could come to my cousin’s sweet 16 in order to talk to my parents?  He said yeah. I was like Whoa. And then like once my dad saw that he was like, okay, let's see. It didn't really hit me until like he walked through the house and we sat in the backyard and then he was literally right there sitting there talking to my parents about all the amazing stuff that we're going to do and all the, all the awesome things that, you know, Paul Quinn had planned for me. This is another reason why I really wanted to come: what college president flies out to another state just to talk to an individual’s parents about how, you know, this school could benefit them?

Pres. Michael Sorrell: My name is Michael Sorrell. I'm the president of Paul Quinn College in Dallas. We recruit students the way other schools recruit athletes, you know, which is a model I'm familiar with because I've been recruiting my whole life for athletics. I saw that, I was like, I understood the difference that being a person instead of being a number meant, and I think people respond to that. And so our recruiters engage that way. Paul Quinn College was founded in 1872, we’re a historically black college which means we were founded to educate freed slaves and their progeny. It was a school that always prided itself on giving students who came from humble backgrounds an opportunity to improve their lives. But it was an institution that trafficked in scarcity, right? Students who were born into scarcity, who came to us without the ability to really pay for their education. What if we took advantage of the corporate opportunities in these cities? And we do it that way. And it took off, right? I mean, because there's some statistics that people don't fully appreciate. Eighty percent of students work more than 20 hours per week. The majority of students in higher ed are on Pell grants, which mean they come from the lowest economic strata in the country. That over 50 percent of students wish college had giving them real world work skills before they got to the workforce. That 79 percent of corporations expect their new hires to come to them with work experience. That's always my favorite because it's like you're a new hire, you're an entry-level hire. How can you expect them to have work experience? But, you know, I digress. So we looked at this and thought there's a lane here, there's a gap here. There's an opportunity here. Why don't we fill it? And that's what we've done. We moved into that space and you know, I think people sometimes are surprised to find out: Paul Quinn College created a new version of higher education. Our students work and they learn. We like to say when they graduate, they know how to think and they know how to do. Those are valuable skills.

Josh: Is there anything specifically about this being an HBCU that drew you here?

Carlton: Okay, so honestly I came here to have somewhere to live. That's, that's how it really started. Of course, you know, I wanted to go to school. I wanted to graduate, but my main reason for coming here was to have a place to stay. My name is Carlton Austin. I am a freshman at Paul Quinn. My major's education. This is actually the second college I’ve been to. My senior year I graduated at a Fort Worth school. Those children, they had always spoke about college. There was a girl, one girl. It always stands out to me and I will always tell people this: Her parents were Aggies. She said she knew she was going to be an Aggie since elementary. All those kids kept asking me, where are you going to college? Where are you going to college, Carlton? I didn't, I didn't have a college yet, you know what I mean? In Dallas, they didn't- they didn't really promote college. They didn't push college. Not- especially not from elementary school. They’re just, they’re happy if we walk across the stage. I started going to Tarrant County College. I was still living here, though. In this area. So I'm driving from here to Fort Worth, every day. It's a Monday through Thursday. I had classes Monday through Thursday and one on Saturday. So I'm driving back and forth, back and forth. My car stopped. I had to drop out. That was- it was a hard thing to deal with- to, to drop out, because I couldn't get there, my grades started falling. I used to sleep at Flying J's. It’s a truck stop. It's called Flying J's. I used to sleep outside there in the car with me and my brother. So this school was my safe haven, like, when I got here, the school, they welcomed me in. Like, there is a financial aid worker, her name is Ms. Jackson. Ms. Jackson, she took me to go buy food, because I didn't have any food. You know what I mean? Yeah, we had lunch and stuff like that. But at nighttime when you need snacks and waters and you know, things of that nature. So Ms Jackson, she, she took me, she went and bought me food, plates. Even underclothes, like she, she really helped me out. And I've been talking to Pres, there are a lot of great people at this school. They made me feel at home. They made me feel welcome. It was a lot of stress that I did have that has left because of this school. It's amazing. I love the school.

Pres. Sorrell: We have to provide wraparound services. 85 to 90 percent of our students are on Pell grants. 70 percent of them get zero expected family contributions. They come from the inner cities of our country.  They come from families where there's some type of economic uncertainty and they are hopeful. They dream of being something more than what they are at this moment. We love our students. We love their profiles. We love to put our arms around them and lead them to the places they need to be. We had a 33 percent retention rate. Our retention rate now is up to 70 plus percent. The graduation rate was almost one percent. It's up now to about 20, 22. And you know, we are projecting in the next couple of years to be up past 30, which I'm not saying that's good enough, right? Like I think if we admit you, you should graduate. But I recognize the realities that I'm dealing with. Like, if you have students whose families are in bad financial shape, you've got to allow for that. You've got to realize that you can do everything humanly possible. It doesn't mean that they're going to finish because there are some other competing interests.

Karla Garcia: I said more often than I was going to drop out than I ever said I was going to graduate from Carolina. I’m Karla Garcia. Just graduated from North Carolina in May and I'm now on the College Access and Success team at Commit. It starts out as simple as I'm on a campus that's beautiful. It's clean. My neighborhood doesn't look like that. Chapel Hill and Pleasant Grove are very different. The people who live there, the way people interact. It was the first time in my life that I went from a predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhood and lifestyle, to predominantly white.  Going into classrooms where I am the only brown person or I look around the room and there are only two or three minority students was hard. I paid a little too much attention to that. But it's hard not to think about them when you're walking into a classroom that just does not look like you. And some of the conversations, particularly as a public policy major, include context, and my context is very different than another classmate's context, particularly when my context is one of the only in the room. And all of a sudden my life and background became case studies in class. And so it was hard to then bridge the personal and academic perspectives. Questioning, you know, what does Latina look like? What does my community look like to others? What do they think? I know it from the inside and the day to day interactions, but the media and people's households and their dinner conversations about my community are very different. And so being able to give that personal insight, and debunking stereotypes, if you will. And I was always very conscious of that, very conscious of the way I carried myself. But staying authentic to who I am. So not being afraid to blast my music, missing my foods and little things like that. But they make a difference. I found a lot of comfort with faculty of color at Carolina, and they are extremely limited. And that's just the American college crisis in and of itself. But just sharing my ideas and frustration with faculty who understood is critical. I remember going into counseling services once and just feeling that the person I was talking to doesn't understand. And I tried transferring out for four straight semesters. I completed the application for transfer admission, but I never submitted them. And, I think it was end of my sophomore year, that was a particularly scary year for me. I went down to the advising office and I said, I am here to drop out.   And they said, well, have you checked with our first generation advisor first? And at that time I thought, that conversation’s not going to change my mind. I'm done, I'm tired, I'm stressed, I'm exhausted, I don't fit in, college isn't for me. I said, sure, why not? So I move on to the first generation office and I speak with a faculty member who, by the end our conversation, takes me by the hand to counseling services. To feel supported that way was dramatic, a dramatic difference for me. And then from there it went on to kind of redefine what am I doing this for and what's my end goal. That was hard, really hard. I won't sugar coat how difficult that was, because it essentially almost demands a deconstruction and reconstruction of who I am. And I think of others too. It's not that I'm not who I was before, but that my understanding of my two very different worlds just makes me more knowledgeable and I'm able to sort of go back and forth. Before going to college, I used to describe myself as Mexican-American and I always thought that the dash in between was a, was a barrier. And now I can see how they're both- It's really a bridge. That's been a really beautiful self-discovery. I now feel much more comfortable with describing myself as Latina, of the Latinx community, and owning that, owning where I'm going, owning what I'm doing, recognizing that I'm not moving forward and taking the rope, I'm moving forward and building stairsteps. That's why I'm here with Commit. I want to see more students like me in class. You know, my community has immense potential. I've learned there were systems intentionally put into place to hold them back and I'm here to get rid of them. I'm here to change them, and to use my experience to inform decisions that are being made, to sit at the table, to have a voice and to share that voice. And so, helping our kids realize that you can do more and be more than what you see around you every day. My God, if that wasn't the hardest thing for me, leaving Pleasant Grove and unfortunately, there are very intentional circumstances as to why you only see what you see, but there is more out there and that's what I want our kids to see. I'm tired of the waste of potential. Tired of it.

Daniel: There's so much talent that is out there that I think as a community, as a culture, as a nation we've missed out on because of a lack of opportunities and I think that every time you fail someone that way, we make ourselves a little bit worse. it's funny, I actually had a guidance counselor when I was in high school, tell me that she didn't think I was ready for college and that she didn't think that I should go to college because I wasn't, I wasn't mature enough at the time.  If I have a kid that has the opportunity to go to a school or it has the opportunity to apply to a school, then they need to, we absolutely have to have them apply to that school. They may not get in and that's fine, but if we've never given that child the opportunity to apply to the right school, then we've failed them from the very beginning. We've said to them, we don't think you can do it. We were essentially doing what my counselor did to me where they've said, we didn't think you were talented enough to do this. We don't think you're good enough to do this. We don't think you're strong enough to do this, and because of who you are, and whether it's because of who you are, what you look like, or what your performance has been up to this point, we're not going to give you the same opportunities that we're going to give other students.

Melanie Orellana: Do I say it now? My name is Melanie Orellana. I've moved probably five times during my elementary school years. So I lived in Dallas and I lived in Mexico. When I was little, I lived there for like a year, then we had to come back because I got sick. We lived somewhere where the nearest clinic was like an hour away, so it was going to be really difficult for my family to even get the treatment in time. And so I lived in a different part of North Dallas, so I got bullied a bunch and it was just like, it was normal stuff. It was normal like- I don't want to say racial… I just didn't know that much English because I forgot it. I was, you know, I was eight years old, so, of course, I'm not going to remember everything. I could feel the social class even in my own community and I felt bad. I felt like I didn't even belong and everybody looks like me, but nobody treated me, like, the same. Then third grade they put me into classes that were more advanced, and so I felt better about myself, about my, you know, value as a person. And so that's when I started to feel better because they started implementing more English classes into my everyday life and so I felt better about myself overall. I really regret not doing better in middle school because a bunch of people think like, oh, it doesn't matter, but it really does like that, that helps you get into the magnet schools and everything like that. That was gonna be my gateway into Townview. So when I came here my freshman year, I kind of slacked off too. I think that I slacked off, because I always think I can do better. And so I was like, you know, maybe if I go to Townview I'm going to do better.  And so I looked into it and they have a fashion program there for business, and I didn't go because I didn't feel like I was good enough. I guess you can say like I kept making excuses like, oh, you know, they're really more centered towards the business field of it and I'm more into the art. And so I kept making excuses. And I really regret not taking into consideration that opportunity. But it also taught me to like look forward to other things and to be able to like open up to other fields. I took advantage of all the art classes I could take. You know, being top ten you, you want to stay in the competition, and you have to sacrifice things. I had to sacrifice art all these years just in order for me to be top 10. So it's like you either choose ceramics or you choose the AP class that everybody's taking right now in order to stay in top 10. I’m an EIF scholar, so I had to apply to 10 schools, had to do my FAFSA, had to visit college campuses. I had to do a bunch of scholarships. I did 25 scholarships. I applied to 20 schools.

Josh: Damn!

Melanie: Yeah. So it's like I had to like do all those things in order for me to just feel like, you know, I have that safety net. So I got accepted to almost all of them. I was aiming for Boston University and I was like, I want to get in and what stopped me was... It wasn't the grades. It wasn't all that, like, if it came down to grades, I would have gotten my grades up, I would have done more prep sessions for the ACT, all that stuff. That would have been okay. But it was the tuition that stopped me. I got accepted to all those that I applied to, but the money wasn't going to be there, and that was, that was holding me back the entire time, you know, like, I can't pay on my own and, I'm like, I'm gonna get the money somehow. That's why, when I signed up for the Dallas County Promise, like- it wasn't my first choice, and it's not going to be the first choice for people who are top 10, top 10 percent, you know, you want to go to the university. But when it comes down to the last two months and you have to decide, what do I actually have available in order for me to actually go to school? Or can I even go into university? My parents don't have papers, and so we finally got the chance to do it like about three years ago. And so the process started and one of the requirements was for him to go back. For him, because of that felony, he has to go back for a year or three years or it can be up to five or up to 10. So we never know. That's why I was, I was struggling. I was like, he's not going to be here, so what am I going to do? My family's a family of six.  So I have three siblings and my mom, like, she doesn't have papers so how she gonna work, like, she's not going to get a good job to feed four kids. And so when we had decision day ceremony, all my friends, all top 10, they're all going to university and I'm the only one going to community college. But it was, what, two days after and some girl comes up to me and she's like, you're going community college, right? And I was like, yeah. She's like, I am too. And so like people felt comfortable telling me that they're going to community college and they didn't feel ashamed because I was top ten. It's nothing shameful. It's like, it's something good, you don't have to pay, you don't have to worry about anything. Sometimes your parents don't have the privilege to, like, fully be invested into your education because they're just trying to provide for you first, you know, it's first like pay the bills and then I can worry about other things. All this time I had to push myself. My sister's 17. I told her that we have to start looking into schools already that she wants to do, because the deadlines for the big schools that are going to give you the most money sometimes, they're November, December. I told her that don't be like me, don't be like me. I waited last minute for some things. I did some things early, you know, but do everything early because you're going to get the money that way. And she had to push herself and my little brother had to push himself and my little sister too. So it's like all this time they know how to get there, and I just hope that like, you know, maybe I messed up in some things but I did some other things that were good too. So as long as she learns from what I did, she'll be able to like get into that field that she wants without feeling like she doesn't belong or she doesn't have the money for it.

Josh: For most of the public school students in Dallas County, community college was always going to be free.  But those same students had no way of knowing for sure what their financial aid packages would look like until after running a gauntlet of applications, forms, and verification requests.  The Dallas County Promise provides that certainty, and the support staff to help students complete that process. This year, FAFSA and TASFA completion at Promise-eligible high schools increased by seven percent. But that’s not all.

Promise team members work as thought partners with college advisors like Marcia and Sara to help make their work more efficient.  They provide counselors to Promise students at each partner institution to ensure they persist. And they award microgrants to high-school student leaders like Jose who want to change the culture on their campus.

But all of these services are necessary because of existing gaps in our public institutions.  A last-dollar scholarship is needed when state funding for higher education remains stagnant, and Pell grants are constantly threatened with de-funding.  Expert assistance is required when government documents are needlessly byzantine and the processes surrounding them disadvantage low-income students.

The Dallas County Promise is seeking to address these structural deficiencies, and has made some headway even in its first year of existence. For the first time this year, DCCCD applications will open in October instead of January, to coincide with the college drives occurring in the public schools, simplifying the entire process for any student seeking those options.

But systemic changes require the support of the entire community.  There’s a growing number of collegiate academies throughout the county that allow students to graduate from high school with an Associate’s degree, but our public schools need our support in order to grow this programming.  And we need them to ensure equity in the opportunity to apply.

So talk to your school board member.  Talk to your legislators. Be an advocate for more counselors and college advisors on our campuses.  Volunteer with any of the organizations featured in this episode. Tell your alma mater to participate in a Promise program.  (I’ll be donating to SMU for the first time ever because I appreciate their contribution to this project, but also think they should accept more Promise students)

And tell our students they’re valued, regardless of their plan for the future.  Let them know the possibilities are endless.

Jose: The Dallas Promise changed my life, the Dallas Promise changed the life of many students in my school. Why? Because many students did not have the opportunity to pay for college. And we want to go to college, and we want people surrounding us to go to college. Why? Because we want to change the atmosphere here, and continue that atmosphere there because next year it's going to be completely different since the Dallas Promise has been introduced to our seniors from last year and we're starting to introduce the seniors from this year for the Dallas Promise. And, you know, we've definitely left steps like “hey, introduce this at this time, introduce this at that time, remember to go back and check with teachers and students and make sure that everybody is educated because students are going to have questions. And if you can’t answer them...

The Miseducation of Dallas County is powered by the Commit Partnership and produced by me, Joshua Kumler.  It is executive produced by me, along with John Hill, Kathryn Mikeska, and Rob Shearer. Mixed and mastered by Adrien Palmer.  Music by Trevor Yokochi. Special thanks to Daniel Grey, Sara Urquidez, David Deggs, Marcia Page, Jose Alvarez, Nahdyiel Molina, Dr. Prof. President Michael Sorrell, Carlton Austin, Karla Garcia, Melanie Orellana, Genesis Garcia, Adan Gonzalez, Sarah Jensen, Phillip Fabian, and everyone else on the Dallas County Promise team.  Visit our website, commitpartership.org, for a complete transcript of this episode. This podcast is dedicated to educators everywhere. The future is in your hands. That’s it for our first season of the Miseducation of Dallas County. Let us know what you think and what you’d like us to cover next.

Josh: You gonna run for office?

Jose: That's what they told me. And I'm like “I don't know about all that.” I really do like helping students and I really do like helping other people.

Josh: So more like superintendent.

Jose: Yeah, that wouldn't be bad, honestly.

Josh: We’ll be back next school year with more Miseducation.