Saturday, March 19, 2016

College Funding Reaches a Critical Stage in D.C.

It’s not a newsflash that college costs have spiraled out of control.  Many colleges expect students or parents to borrow huge amounts of money to finance their education.  For RISE’s low-income students, funding for college has been manageable recently but may reach a crisis state before long. 

Pell Grants are still worth less than $6,000 per year for RISE’s students.  Isolated scholarships are available, but they are usually just a few thousand dollars each and only available to students with high GPA’s or test scores.  About fifteen years ago the DC CollegeSuccess Foundation was launched to help students in Wards 7 and 8 pay for college.  The Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) had audited the population in Wards 7 and 8 and found that, on average, only 3% of each public school graduating class was finishing college.  Funded largely by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the “Double the Numbers” Initiative of the DC College Success Foundation has had the intention of doubling the number of students graduating from college.

The initiative has largely succeeded, although RISE believes the numbers could be much higher still.  I write more about this here.  The game changer for low-income students was the DC Achievers Scholarship program run by the DC College Success Foundation.  The program is open to high school students in Wards 7 and 8 and has provided approximately $10,000 in grant money for each year of college for approximately sixty students at each of six high schools for the last ten years.  With the DC TAG program also available, enabling D.C. students to essentially get the in-state tuition rate at any public university in the country, college became eminently affordable to the lucky recipients.

The Achievers program, however, is ending.  Ward 7 and Ward 8 students now face a specter of the near impossibility of funding for four-year college other than the local and much maligned University of the District of Columbia, whose struggles were the impetus for DC TAG.  As of yet, neither  OSSE nor District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) have yet to announce any measure for the Classes of 2018 and beyond.

The DC Council had floated the idea of a $70,000 scholarship program for students, but that bill stalled.  Any college scholarship program administrator will tell you it is incredibly expensive to run and maintain such a program.  Not only the scholarships need to be dispensed, but students need training for college, help with logistics, and counseling.   

RISE’s College Prep program helps students with academic preparation, college choices, logistics with financial aid paperwork and enrollment, and college visits.  But RISE cannot bridge the looming funding gap that threatens to return Ward 7 and 8 students back to a distinct disadvantage in college admissions.

As we transition into the post-Achievers era, you can be sure RISE will be dialoguing with DCPS and City Council regarding this critical situation.  Our mission is not one of political advocacy, so anyone interested in this issue is encouraged to dialogue as well.

RISE's College Prep Cohorts

RISE started the College Prep program in 2013 for the members of the class of 2014.  The original impetus for the program was our belief that our students were not making the most educated college choices.  We have provided them with mentors and with college visits to help them make informed choices, and we have also offered SAT prep, which may become less necessary now that the SAT is a more straight-forward test. 

We think the mentoring program, college visits, and SAT prep have all paid a role in helping our students become as prepared for college as possible.  We also found our students need logistical help and a little financial help with the enrollment process so that the cost of books or a room deposit do not get in the way of their success.  We even have delivered students to their campuses and have made numerous trips to get our kids home and back for school breaks.  After observing best practices of programs like POSSE and I Have a Dream, we decided to visit our students each semester during freshman and sophomore year.

When we recruited our first cohort of students, in the winter of 2013, we drew mainly from our MATHletes program.  These students tended to have some of the higher GPA’s in their class.  But we also decided to recruit one or two students each year who showed great potential even if their GPA was not high.  These students had one foot in the streets and one foot out.

Our first cohort of eleven students is now in their sophomore year.  Two of those students opted out of college soon after matriculating and began apprenticeships for plumber and electrician, respectively.  I expect each student to be very successful in those careers.  Three students lost their college funding standing after earning poor grades, so they are attending community college in an effort to get their GPA’s up.  Others have had some brief interruptions in school, but we still fully expect most students to have their degree within six years.

I cannot understate the personal, emotional, and logistical challenges many of these students have faced.  Three of our students were homeless for part of their senior year.  One student became withdrawn from half of his classes in a mistake by a college professor.  The financial aid office withdrew the student’s aid, resulting in a huge bill.  The financial aid office wouldn’t even talk to him anymore since he wasn’t a full-time student.  When he tried to talk to the registrar about his courses, they wouldn’t talk to him either because he had a large bill to pay.  The situation was never satisfactorily resolved.

RISE’s second College Prep cohort, high school graduates of the class of 2015, was probably Anacostia’s most proficient group of students in the four years RISE worked at Anacostia High School.  We are especially proud of our students who have intrepidly made unusual choices for colleges, like the University of Arizona and Stevenson College outside Baltimore.   

Our third cohort, graduating soon in June, has more modest academic accomplishments but is as perseverant as any group we have worked with.  As I mentioned in the last newsletter, violence is common in these students’ lives, and they are eager to get out of Southeast Washington.

Many of our fourth cohort of Anacostia students have higher GPA’s and SAT’s than any previous group, and they are looking at schools previous cohorts did not consider, like Guilford College and CampbellUniversity, both in North Carolina.  Both colleges have excellent demographic diversity and could very well offer substantial financial aid to any of our students with GPA’s of 3.5 or higher.

How we design the College Prep program for the class of 2018 will depend on outside funding.  We do not want to be in the position of championing college for any students for whom the financial obstacles are too numerous.