Better together: Teaming to tackle San Antonio’s need for medical assistants


Before she turned 28, Elizabeth Trevino had worked a couple of nothing-special jobs as a call center representative and a retail store manager. The San Antonio resident always thought she might work one day in health care, but it was never clear to her how she might enter the field. 

When Trevino’s husband learned about a new medical assisting (MA) program, he pushed her to apply. She is glad she did.

Trevino now works as a medical assistant in a doctor’s office, where she draws blood, does lab work and updates health records for seniors she fondly refers to as “my patients.” The pay is good, the hours are predictable, and Trevino is thinking about returning to school to become a sonographer.

Pooling financial, academic and employer resources

What made it possible for Trevino to get into health care was a unique new partnership assembled to produce more highly trained medical assistants. This partnership allowed Trevino to quickly earn an MA certificate without taking on college debt. It also created an effective, efficient and potentially scalable program to address chronic regional shortages of highly trained medical assistants sought after by hospitals, clinics and doctor’s offices throughout the San Antonio region. 

Like many major U.S. cities, San Antonio has an enormous shortage of medical assistants. Colleges in and around San Antonio cannot begin to fill the thousands of open positions across the region and it impacts quality healthcare.

Alamo Colleges District, a network of five public community colleges in the San Antonio region, came up with a novel solution to help solve this massive imbalance between regional demand and the lack of local educational capacity: It partnered with the College of Health Care Professions to pool financial, academic and employer resources to address this challenge.

San Antonio, the nation’s seventh-largest city, possesses an abundance of latent talent that could be upskilled to meet the demand for medical assistants. About one in five adults in the city lacks a high school diploma, while another quarter attended college but didn’t earn a credential. 

Medical assisting represents a valid career option for many adult learners who lack a college degree. There’s a low barrier to entering the field because MA certification programs don’t require a college degree or prior STEM experience. The job offers good pay — $17 an hour or higher with benefits — and steady and predictable hours, a first for those who held only low-wage jobs before becoming a medical assistant. 

Perhaps most importantly, working as a certified medical assistant opens future paths to other healthcare careers, such as office manager, clinical specialist or registered nurse. The potential for social and economic mobility is enormous.

Overcoming the biggest hurdle

The biggest barrier to meeting San Antonio’s insatiable demand for medical assistants has been capacity and programs that work with adult learners with complicated and busy lives. We recognized that it would take creative thinking and collaboration to meet the needs of our workforce. To create the pilot program with a deep focus on adult learners that we envisioned, we chose to work with the College of Health Care Professions (CHCP), the largest provider of allied health education across Texas, which offers a stackable “earn-and-learn” MA program, including blended two-day-a-week and evening formats, flexible class schedules and wraparound services designed specifically for adult learners juggling job and family responsibilities.

Alamo Colleges District with its reach across the region and counseling to ensure a good fit for prospective learners. 

CHCP also had a proven track record with Hispanic and first-generation students who comprise the majority of its enrollment. From 2012 to 2018, according to a Rice University study, 78% of the college’s admitted Hispanic students graduated and 80% of certificate holders found work in their fields. Because CHCP has a long involvement in health care across Texas, we were able to tap into its extensive network of employer externships that give prospective MAs and other students real-world learning experiences in a variety of healthcare settings.

Funding was a critical piece of this puzzle because both institutions wanted learners to graduate debt-free. So we lead the process of braiding together funding from several sources, including federal Pell Grants and CHCP scholarships. Alamo Colleges District came through with additional funding through its partnership in Train for Jobs SA, a city program that supported training programs that prepared local residents for jobs in high-demand fields.

The result: success

This collaborative approach succeeded. All 10 students who started the new MA program — including Trevino — earned their certificates, graduated without debt, secured their national certification and were offered jobs as medical assistants. The program was a big win both for the institutions involved and for quality healthcare in the San Antonio region, which now has a scalable new source of medical assistants who can support the health and well-being of its residents. The biggest winners of all, meanwhile, are program graduates, whose lives and futures have been permanently changed for the better.

Buoyed by this success, we continue to work together to raise awareness of the potential of medical assisting careers, add additional on-ramps for adult learners, secure more funding and scale the program to better meet the region’s healthcare needs. By working together creatively and cooperatively, public and private institutions and workforce boards can devise programs with the potential to transform the lives of working adults.

About the Author

Sammi Morrill
Sammi Morrill is associate vice chancellor of operations, economic and workforce development at the Alamo Colleges District in Texas.
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