Testimony Before the Council of the District of Columbia Committee on Education, Libraries and Recreation
On Bills 16-248 and 16-384 Concerning Higher Education Financial Assistance
Thank you for the opportunity to testify in support of this important legislation to improve educational opportunity for citizens in the District of Columbia. As the only local university with a distinctive focus on women’s education, Trinity has a unique history in the District of Columbia, and we are particularly proud to call Ward 5 our home. We are grateful to Councilmember Vincent Orange for his leadership on behalf of Ward 5, and for his co-sponsorship of this important legislation.
Trinity today educates more District of Columbia residents than any other private university in Washington. Nearly half of Trinity’s 1600 students in all programs are D.C. residents. Trinity’s student body is nearly 90% African American, Latina and Asian; the federal government now officially classifies Trinity as a Minority Institution.
While nearly half of our 1,600 students are D.C. residents, only a small percentage of those D.C. residents are able to participate in the D.C. Tuition Assistance Grant Program because of the way the eligibility rules work for that program. Those who do receive D.C. TAG grants to attend Trinity may receive a maximum of only $2,500 (annually, $12,500 total over 5 years), compared to the maximum of $10,000 (annually, $50,000 maximum over 5 years) available for students who are able to attend public universities outside of D.C. Even fewer Trinity students receive assistance through the D.C. College Access Program. Grateful as we are for the support Trinity students receive through DC TAG and DC CAP, we know that even greater financial assistance is necessary to ensure that D.C. residents can reap the full benefit of their educational opportunities at Trinity and at the other fine universities in the District of Columbia.
The relatively large group of D.C. residents attending Trinity have some notable characteristics. They are more than 90% female, with many as single parents, even those who are still in their teens and young adult years. The vast majority of Trinity’s D.C. residents hail from the eastern half of the city, which includes those wards with some of the highest poverty rates among jurisdictions nationally. More than 20% of Trinity’s D.C. students are from Wards 7 and 8. Trinity enrolls students from every public high school in the District of Columbia.
Many if not most of the D.C. residents attending Trinity work a considerable number of hours each week in order to support their education and their family needs. Indeed, even among traditional-aged first year students, we find it is not uncommon for an 18-year-old full-time freshwoman to be working 40 hours a week or more in order to support herself and her family. Nearly 40% of our full-time students who are D.C. residents have zero “expected family contribution” in federal aid calculations. Nearly 75% receive Pell grants.
Trinity provides more than $1.5 million annually in direct tuition subsidies to D.C. residents who attend Trinity (and Trinity leverages an additional $7.5 million annually in other private and public financial assistance for D.C. residents attending Trinity). Trinity’s tuition discount rate is 40%, and this is unfunded aid (meaning it is a revenue reduction, not a cost that has a subsidy from some other source) — contrary to popular misconceptions about private universities, we are not a wealthy institution. Our endowment is just $9 million. Our operating budget is just about $20 million this year. So a $1.5 million subsidy to D.C. residents is 7.5% of Trinity’s budget, a sizeable indication of our commitment to their educational opportunity.
I should also mention that Trinity has deliberately repressed the growth of our tuition price. At $17,200 for full-time students this year, our price is significantly discounted already compared to other private universities. Our price for the adult students in the School of Professional Studies is even more heavily repressed, at just $465 per credit. While these numbers are larger than the tuition price of a taxpayer-supported public university, of course, they reflect the actual cost to educate our students in an environment where Trinity has few other sources of support, and some significant additional costs due to location. If Trinity were located in Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey or New York, Trinity would have “state” sources of support for facilities, technology and other student-focused needs. Moreover, Trinity’s location in northeast Washington imposes certain additional costs that similarly-sized state-supported institutions in Maryland and Virginia and other states do not have, notably, the cost of campus security, which, at $1.2 million this year, is 6% of our budget.
Even with Trinity’s large subsidy to D.C. students through direct discounting and price restraint, however, we know that our D.C. residents struggle with the financial challenge of staying in school. Many of these students are also academically at-risk, coming from a public school system that is, unfortunately, well known for academic deficiencies. The SAT scores of D.C. residents are lower than those of surrounding jurisdictions, an indicator of the learning gap we must close. These students have good brains, great potential, but poor preparation for college. They require significant amounts of additional academic support in order to catch-up with their collegiate peers, to persist and complete their college degrees successfully.
Among all students at Trinity, our D.C. residents by and large are the very students who need to focus more on catching-up academically, who need to spend more time in tutorials and academic support classes. Yet, they are also the very students whose financial circumstances, often combined with a distinct lack of family support for their college attendance, forces them to work more hours than the norm to come up with the additional monies they need to pay the small balance left on their tuition bills after all other aid, to buy books and to pay for their living expenses. The cascading effect of working more hours than they should, detracting from their studies, and suffering the stress of living on the margins, all too often results in academic failure as well as eventual financial meltdown.
Your proposed legislation will provide significant relief for exactly the population of students whose financial circumstances put them at greatest risk of dropping out of college. The difference between academic success, a college degree and lifelong economic security — or academic failure and lifelong economic stress — can be as little as a few thousand dollars in financial aid. Your bills will provide an extraordinary lifeline for students who can and will succeed with your help. The return on this modest investment will be clear: all studies show that the achievement of a baccalaureate degree will more than double a person’s lifetime earnings.
The link between the economic improvement of all neighborhoods in the District of Columbia and the achievement of college degrees among D.C. citizens is clear. The District of Columbia has a well known bimodal distribution of wealth and education. This city leads the nation in the number of residents with advanced degrees. This city also has the highest per capita income when ranked among states. However, this city also has one of the highest poverty rates in the nation, and one of the highest rates of adults with no high school diploma, or only a high school diploma with no further education. This bimodal distribution of education and wealth is the great divide between west and east in the District of Columbia. Your bills providing financial assistance for college attendance according to the financial needs of D.C. residents will go a long way toward closing that historic, painful gap in educational and economic achievement in our city.
Why do our D.C. students choose Trinity? I read the essays the full-time students write in their applications, and I speak often with them and with our adult students. Their responses are similar: They are striving to make their lives better, to care for their children more effectively, to care for their parents who have struggled for them. They know they need an academically and personally supportive environment to achieve their goals — but they also want to be challenged and pushed. They place an extraordinarily high value on the potential they see in our focus on women’s leadership and women’s success. They also have a passionate desire to engage directly with their teachers continuously, that “high-touch-high-feel” hallmark of the small women’s college that Trinity has worked hard to keep even as we have migrated into our university status.
They want all of this, but they need help to achieve their dreams. Trinity extends as much help as we possibly can, not only our financial assistance, but an extraordinarily large reservoir of learning skills support, academic advising and tutorial services, health and wellness programs that are available without additional charge to our students, and other forms of personal attention.
Trinity’s success in the education of D.C. residents is clear in our analysis of retention and completion patterns for our students who have participated in the D.C. TAG program. Of the 444 students who have participated in D.C. TAG through Trinity since its inception, 73% have completed or are still enrolled. By all accounts, this retention and completion rate for D.C. TAG recipients is one of the best in the program.
This fall, Trinity is also extending its educational commitment to the citizens of the District of Columbia through opening new educational opportunities east of the river, at THE ARC on Mississippi Avenue in Ward 8. Trinity will be the first private university to offer collegiate programming in this part of southeast Washington. As we have met with the Parklands community and citizens of Ward 8 involved with THE ARC, we have received a tremendous number of requests for broad educational programs from adult basic education through master’s degrees. Trinity will provide this programming in as responsive a manner as possible, but we have one large stumbling block: many citizens in Wards 7 and 8 simply cannot afford to pay much, if any, tuition. Many of them cannot meet the strict criteria of federal financial aid, either. I hope that as this bill progresses to approval, you will consider including provisions to support citizens who may be able to take only one course at a time, who may be older but not working, who should have the opportunity to go to college at a pace and in a place that meets their needs.
Thank you for the opportunity to present this testimony. Trinity and I look forward to continuing to work with you and all of our colleagues in the District of Columbia as we advance the cause of higher education for all citizens.