DALLAS (CBSDFW.COM) - An innovative plan to remove hurdles to higher education in Dallas County is already paying off big. Dallas County Promise launched in the fall of 2017 -- promising graduating seniors from 31 area high schools, free tuition at any Dallas County Community College Campuses: no strings attached. Lancaster High graduate Cameron Grace, was a one-time skeptic.
"I'm a have to be honest with you," the charming teenager shared with a laugh, "it sounded a little like a unicorn, and I'm like unicorns don't exist."
But, he started classes this week at Cedar Valley College, tuition free, taking his first steps toward earning a degree, without taking on debt.
"They're like, 'we got that for you, so all you have to do is focus on learning' and MAN, I'm happy about it! Like, super happy about it," he added with a grateful smile. "I go into in class every day stress free looking around like, man, I don't know what ya'll here for, but I'm here to learn this stuff!"
The program has no income or GPA requirements: students are only required to sign up online by a spring deadline, complete financial aid forms on time, and register for classes. And supporters now say they have, in huge numbers.
"That's a big deal!" says Eric Ban, Ed.D., Managing Director of Dallas County Promise. "Forty percent enrollment growth in one year in higher education is something that doesn't happen. Yeah. This is huge."
Dr. Ban says on campus "success coaches" will help students navigate any bumps they encounter along the way-- hoping to help make sure those who start college, also finish. Still, there is already reason to celebrate. Supporters say the program has already led to double digit college enrollment growth from some of Dallas County's poorest communities.
"It's a promise to make college affordable: free tuition for students, guaranteed, regardless of income or GPA. So when we go in to partner with a high school, all means all," says Ban.
Still, the effort isn't completely altruistic.
"It's about economic development in North Texas," says Ban, "we have to grow our talent."
And yes, perhaps that starts with convincing the next potential class of scholars to believe in unicorns, that come disguised as debt free college degrees.
"It's been great," says Grace. "Every day it's been great for me and I know it's just going to get better."
Funded in part by the Dallas County Community College Foundation, the program will expand from 31 to 43 high schools next year.
And a parting message for future students: "Take it, take it. That unicorn is real!"
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