By Robbie Owens

DALLAS (CBS11) – A major deadline is approaching for Dallas County high school seniors interested in taking advantage of free tuition in the fall.

The program is called Dallas County Promise and eligible seniors have until Wednesday, January 31 to complete an online pledge.

The effort, funded by the Dallas County Community College Foundation, is part of a big picture plan to continue growing an educated workforce. But, Grand Prairie High School senior Angelica Estrada has another name for the almost-too-good-to-be-true offer: an answered prayer.

“Once I saw this opportunity, it was like, God heard my prayers,” says Estrada.

The varsity soccer player who’s also active in student council and a host of other activities wants to become a police officer or work in law enforcement. “It was my target to go to college,” says Estrada. “I just didn’t know how to get there. I just didn’t know how I would afford it, basically.”

Dallas County Promise has now answered both those questions. Students at 31 Dallas County high schools are eligible to participate. But, staffers at GPHS are boasting of 100 percent participation in Step 1– and now they’re working to help families with Step 2: completing federal financial aid forms.

“For me, I thought it was very complicated,” says Estrada, “so when I went to our college and career center, they were just telling me, ‘oh, you just need your parent’s information’, so I called my Mom and it was just like that!” Before she could say the words, Estrada’s huge grin finished her story: she’s going to college. For free!

“Dallas County needs to be more intentional in developing the talent that’s here,” said Eric Ban, Ed.D., Dallas County Promise managing director in November during the program’s initial rollout. Ban says the effort’s biggest challenge has been in convincing skeptical teens that there is no catch, and the process is as simple as it seems: free tuition, no income or grade requirements.

“When you don’t have someone who’s walked that road, it’s difficult for them to help you navigate it,” says Phillip Burks, a counselor at Grand Prairie High. “So it’s about preparing them and, giving them the tools they need to take those next steps.”

Burks says three evening workshops are planned at the school on February 13, 15 and 21 to help families complete the FAFSA forms. The third step is the easiest of all– register for classes, tuition free.

“Not everyone can afford a college education,” says Burks. “To be able to have those first two years taken care of, is a huge motivator. All I have to do is sign up and go? It’s awesome.”

Estrada puts it this way: “Dallas County Promise gives you relief… like a breather.”

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