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.

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