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Bill Reauthorizing D.C. Tuition Assistance

Bill Reauthorizing D.C. Tuition Assistance
Program Clears House Committee

By David Pluviose

In a year of massive cuts to popular federal higher education programs, the House Government Reform Committee has recently passed a measure reauthorizing the District of Columbia College Access Act for another five years, ensuring the continued existence of the D.C. Tuition Assistance Grants (TAG) Program. This move comes after President Bush’s fiscal year 2007 budget proposed funding D.C. TAG at $35 million, a nearly $2 million increase from last year’s appropriation.

“The district doesn’t have any state university system, it has only one [university]. While college enrollment has lagged in the U.S., it has soared up in the district precisely because of this program. So it’s one of those great success stories in higher education that neither Republicans nor most Democrats want to let go,” says Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C.’s nonvoting delegate to Congress, who co-sponsored the tuition assistance bill.

D.C. TAG provides up to $10,000 to allow students from the district to attend any U.S. public college or university at in-state tuition rates. The program also allows up to $2,500 annually for students to attend certain regional private colleges or private HBCUs. According to Norton, Mayor Anthony A. Williams has credited the program — enacted in 1999 — for the 35 percent increase in college-attendance rates for district residents. The program has also stemmed the tide of district residents moving to the neighboring states of Maryland and Virginia in pursuit of in-state tuition.

While the program allows students to pay in-state tuition anywhere in the country, they cannot use those funds to attend the University of the District of Columbia, the city’s sole public higher education institution. Supporters of UDC say this puts the school at a competitive disadvantage, as it is still recovering from the halving of its operating budget in 1997 on orders from the Congressionally created D.C. Financial Control Board. For example, UDC art professor Dr. Meredith Rode dubs the D.C. College Access Act the “escaping UDC bill.” University  spokesman Mike Andrews says UDC is simply seeking the same benefits granted to all other public universities.

“We understand the concerns of legislators in making education available across the board. It should be completely inclusive. … If there is such a program, which allows for tuition assistance, it should be tuition assistance to everybody. Instead of just going out of state, provide tuition assistance for students coming to the University of the District of Columbia,” Andrews says.

Norton says UDC students favored the tuition bill when it was enacted in 1999, as it also recognized the university as a historically Blackinstitution.

“UDC students supported my bill when it went through for a very important reason. I used the bill to get something that UDC has wanted for decades — they got HBCU status and the funding that goes along with that.”

Norton adds that because a majority of UDC students are working adults, as opposed to the traditional full-time college-goers D.C. TAG attracts, “the bill is not drawing from the same pool at all.”

She also stresses that the 35 percent increase in district residents’ college attendance “tells you that [D.C. TAG is not] taking from UDC. UDC has had trouble stabilizing its student body because it did draw from such a limited pool. … We love UDC. We need UDC. But we also need something for kids just getting out of school who want to go to a four-year college or a specialized college that does not have what UDC had.”

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