A great bright light of good news shone forth from Social Hall last Friday when D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray announced the new Mayor’s Scholarships. While a relatively small fund at present — just $1.2 million in awards thus far — the program is a huge breakthrough to correct a longstanding injustice for D.C. students who stay in the District of Columbia to attend college by providing support based on financial need.
Just about twelve years ago, with the leadership of D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, Congress created the D.C. Tuition Assistance Grant (DC-TAG) program. The program has been a great boon to all residents of the city — regardless of need, through DC-TAG eligible D.C. residents can receive grants of up to $10,000 annually to attend public universities outside of D.C., or $2,500 if they attend private universities in D.C. or any HBCU (Historically Black College or University) in the nation. DC-TAG awards thousands of grants worth tens of millions of dollars annually. A group of private business leaders, with Washington Post Chairman Donald Graham in the lead, created a parallel private scholarship program known as DC-CAP (the D.C. College Access Program).
Unfortunately, while DC-TAG is a very important source of support for D.C. citizens attending college, the program also contains some structural injustices that the new Mayor’s Scholars program will now redress. Two injustices stand out: (1) students attending the city’s public university, UDC, were deliberately excluded from participation in the program from its inception; and (2) students who remained in D.C. to attend private colleges received significantly less aid even though in many cases their financial need was much greater than students who received larger grants to go to public universities in other states.
These injustices arose because the purpose of DC-TAG was never to provide financial aid based on the student’s financial need. Rather, the program was created to satisfy taxpayers — particularly high income taxpayers — who threatened to move out of the city because D.C. did not have the same robust range of public university options as, say, Virginia or Maryland. The DC-TAG subsidy intended to keep taxpayers in the city by levelizing the public higher education playing field — and then some, since the program has subsidized local residents attending flagship universities all over the country, a benefit that few if any states can match.
Needless to say, the enthusiasm for sending students away from D.C. had a negative effect on the local public university, UDC. Additionally, the bias against private colleges and universities meant that local students who could not go out of state for many reasons suffered discrimination in the amount of money they could receive from the program.
Over the last decade, Trinity has become a model for an urban university that educates the citizens of the city quite well, and Trinity’s great work has helped to change negative political attitudes about “elite” and “expensive” private universities turning their backs on the neediest students of the city.
When I first heard about the plans for DC-TAG in 1999-2000, I was stunned to learn that the original proposal included no funds for students attending local private colleges. That was just wrong — and I went down to Capitol Hill and made the case for some funding to Delegate Norton, Congressman Tom Davis who then chaired the D.C. Affairs Committee, Senator George Voinovich who chaired the Senate D.C. Committee, and just about anyone else who would listen. Former D.C. Councilmember and then-Southeastern University President Charlene Drew Jarvis joined me, and Sr. Eymard Gallagher who was then president at Marymount. Three women presidents on a mission for some simple justice for D.C. students — our advocacy was modestly successful, we managed to get the $2,500 grants for students attending Consortium private colleges, but we always knew that was not complete justice. (And, by the way, the amount has not changed in 12 years even though tuition has gone up everywhere.)
Trinity today educates more D.C. residents than any private university in the nation. Trinity puts its own resources on the line to do this — last year, with more than 1,200 D.C. residents enrolled, Trinity awarded nearly $5,000,000 in grants and discounts to D.C. students. That’s a lot of money on a total budget of $32 million!
Trinity’s investment in D.C. students received considerable help from DC-TAG and DC-CAP. But even with those sources, Pell Grants and federal loans, too many of the neediest local students run the risk of stopping out of school because the expenses of attending college become too much. I constantly remind scholarship benefactors that the costs are not just tuition (which we subsidize heavily already), but also books and computers, transportation, food and housing — with housing being an increasingly difficult topic for many citizens of our city. I spoke to this very issue in my remarks at the press conference the other day.
Mayor Gray has understood the problem astutely, and when the opportunity arose to begin to address the injustice, he stepped up to the challenge. More than 70 D.C. residents at Trinity are now part of the Mayor’s Scholarship program, and we will press on to see that the program grows in the years to come so that every student’s need can be met completely.
Please join me in extending great thanks to Mayor Gray, OSSE Superintendent Hosanna Mahaley, Assistant Superintendent Emily Durso and the team in D.C. Government who made these grants possible!
P.S.: Another great moment last week at the D.C. College Success Foundation breakfast — more than 70 Trinity students have D.C. Achievers Scholarships this year, and we are so grateful to CSF-DC, Costco and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation!
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Check out my blog “Professors are Better than That!” at the Huffington Post