Lawmakers Fund College Access Program for D.C. Students

Lawmakers Fund College Access Program for D.C. Students
By Charles Dervarics

A five-year-old program to help District of Columbia students attend college is winning an endorsement from the U.S. Congress and likely will get a major funding increase next year.
The District of Columbia College Access Act allows D.C. high school graduates to pay in-state tuition rates at any public college or university nationwide, with the federal government picking up the difference. Students also can get $2,500 in annual tuition assistance to attend private Black colleges nationwide or private colleges and universities in the Washington, D.C., area. Congress created the program in 1999, but it will terminate soon unless lawmakers grant an extension.
Strong supporters of the program say that since 1999, the number of D.C. high school graduates continuing on to college has increased by 28 percent — five times the national average. “That is an astounding record of success,” says Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., chairman of the House Government Reform Committee that oversees the program.
Buoyed by the success, the House of Representatives in July gave the program a five-year extension. Legislation moving on a separate track in the House would provide a 50 percent funding increase to $25 million next year. Senate action on both measures is still pending.
Congress created the program to increase college-going rates in the District and to offer alternatives for D.C. students, since the city lacks the traditional large-scale public university system found in states.
“No city in America faces what the District does —  no state government to administer a university system and no financial base to make up the difference,” said D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams, who appeared at a recent Capitol Hill hearing.
While the program is not income based — low-income and more affluent families are eligible for the program — supporters claim that the program is reaching an at-risk population and helping them get to college.
“A whole new population of students in the District has been given the opportunity to go to college and they are taking it,” said Argelia Rodriguez, executive director of the D.C. College Access Program, which provides college counseling and information about higher education and the D.C. tuition benefit.
To bolster their case, advocates provided Congress with a detailed geographic breakdown of aid recipients. For example, the data shows that the largest users of the program are families in the city’s north central and northeast neighborhoods, areas with a mix of low- and middle-income residents. Together, these two areas account for about 36 percent of aid recipients.
East and Southeast Washington, D.C., are the next most popular neighborhoods to use the program, and both areas have sizable populations of low-income households. Rodriguez said about 90 percent of those heading to college are students of color, while 80 percent are the first generation in their families to attend college.
“Participation in the program represents the full diversity of the city,” according to Williams.
Overall, the number of D.C. high school graduates going to college reached 2,230 in 2002, up from 1,750 in 1998 before the start of the program. Since its inception, more than 6,500 students have received $63 million.
But sponsors speak frankly about another goal of the program — to keep tax-paying families from moving out of the District in search of better college aid options. They say the program provides a “win-win” situation, providing tuition breaks to families and helping maintain a stable city tax base.
“The cost of tuition is a significant reason many residents left and others refused to settle here rather than in Maryland or Virginia,” said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., the District’s non-voting representative in Congress. “The program is an unqualified success story.”
The act “gives D.C. residents the options for college attendance routinely enjoyed by other Americans through their state college systems,” she added. D.C.’s only public university, the University of the District of Columbia, is an open enrollment institution.
Prior to enactment of the law, D.C. high school graduates paid more than twice the national average to attend public colleges elsewhere.
District graduates have used the benefits to enroll at leading flagship institutions such as the University of Virginia, the University of Michigan and the University of California-Berkeley, Rodriguez noted. However, among HBCUs, enrollment of D.C. residents has quadrupled at Virginia Union University and tripled at Norfolk State and North Carolina A&T universities, she added.
Congress last amended the program in 2002, when it opened up participation to HBCUs regardless of location and added older students to the list of eligible recipients.
The Senate has yet to take up the bills. Without the spending increase, District officials say, the city may have to reduce tuition awards or convert it into a need-based program. A Senate panel is likely to take up the spending bill before the summer ends.
For more information about the program, contact D.C.’s State Education Office at (202) 727-6436 or visit the Web at <www.seo.dc.gov>.



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