- 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.

“Back in high school I wanted to go to college, but I had no idea how I would manage financially,” Ms. Chappin says. “I thought I could maybe take a few classes. … The career counselor’s expectations, thankfully, were much higher.”

Ms. Chappin attended Woodrow Wilson High School in the District and was also a teenage mom. Her son Jerimiah is now 7 years old.

Through a combination of grants, including DCTAG, she managed to finish her four-year degree with only “minimal debt,” she says (the Office of the State Superintendent of Education offers several different grants; some are financial-needs based).

The best thing about the DCTAG program, though, is the staff, she says.

“They stay in touch with you, they give you continual support,” she says.

So, how do students find out about DCTAG and the other grants available?

“We have a very aggressive outreach program,” Mr. Parham says. It includes working with students with their college and financial aid applications at school; organizing college fairs (there is one at the DC Armory in Southeast in September); offering an online application; and working with libraries and public recreation centers to make sure they have application forms available.

Ms. Chappin says any and all efforts to make college more tangible to high school students — through tours, mentoring, application help — should be applauded.

“We promote getting an education, but not necessarily how to get there,” she says.

Cost is certainly a mile-high hurdle for many.

“College nowadays is ridiculously expensive,” Ms. Chappin says. “After four years, you owe the equivalent of a house. … Without the help of all the grants and all the support and encouragement I got, I would have been at least $100,000 in debt.”

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