- The Washington Times - Monday, January 21, 2008

The appeal for parents living in the District of Columbia to move to the suburbs often is intense: Better schools and safer neighborhoods are among top draws.

Yes, indeed, the District of Columbia school system — granted, it has some positives — usually doesn’t offer up many bright spots for parents and children. Most recently, an Education Week report showed DCPS as among the worst in the nation in kindergarten through 12th-grade achievement.

Additionally, once students graduate from high school, there is only one public university where District students are eligible for in-state tuition, the University of the District of Columbia, which is unranked among the hundreds of universities ranked annually by U.S. News and World Report. Compare that to Virginia and Maryland — home to some of the nation’s top-notch public universities.

So, is there anything at all to cheer about if you’re a District of Columbia parent?

Well, yes. There is the District of Columbia Tuition Assistance Grant (DCTAG), a grant program started in 1999 to help level the college playing field — at least financially — for District of Columbia residents.

Essentially, it offers $10,000 a year (although no one can receive more than $50,000, even if it takes more than five years to complete a degree) to students who apply to out-of-state public universities, such as the University of California at Berkeley.

“It came about to bring some balance,” says John Parham, director of higher education financial services of the Office of the State Superintendent of Education for the District of Columbia.

It is not just geared toward low-income residents.

“You can get this regardless of income,” Mr. Parham says. “You don’t even have to go to school in the District as long as your parents live here. … You could go to a boarding school in Massachusetts and still get this grant.”

Last year, about 5,000 students received the grant. About 68 percent were considered low-income; and in 38 percent of cases, the student was the first in his or her family to attend college. Turns out, though, that the families of some recipients were quite well-heeled, leading to a new provision — an income limit of $1 million yearly for applicants’ families.

So, let’s use the Berkeley example. State residents of California pay nothing in tuition (excluding room and board and other fees), while out-of-state students pay about $18,000 in tuition. The DCTAG grant would cover $10,000, leaving $8,000 for the student to pay.

“This was never designed to pay the whole amount, but just help close the gap,” Mr. Parham says.

Back in 1999 when the act was passed, $10,000 got you a little further than it does today, he says. In some cases, it might have closed the gap between out-of-state and in-state tuition completely.

Most of the DCTAG grants — about 79 percent — go to students attending public universities, but the rest go to students attending private universities. These grants are smaller: $2,500 annually or no more than $12,500 total. The DCTAG program is funded at about $33 million yearly.

One grateful recipient is Randa Chappin, who received a bachelor’s degree in communications and urban development from American University in 2005.

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