DC Students and DC TAG Lack Meaningful College Options


March 25, 2016

By Mary Nguyen Barry

Students and families in Washington, D.C. are stuck between a rock and a hard place.

As in many cities, DC students face a number of education realities specific to an urban public school environment: segregated schools, inequitable facilities, and inequitable school resources.

But unlike most students who successfully navigate the system to high school graduation, students in Washington, D.C. face a challenge unique to the nation’s capital: they have essentially zero “in-state” public college options. All four-year college options are effectively private.

The lack of meaningful in-state public college options is one of the biggest policy issues facing D.C. high school students, said Jessica Cunningham, the principal at KIPP DC College Preparatory in Northeast.

Now technically, students do have options. They can either attend the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) or they can attend a public college out of state and receive a discount provided by the D.C. Tuition Assistance Grant Program (DC TAG).

But let’s be real.  Only 6 percent of students graduate from UDC within four years. And the discount provided by DC TAG – a program designed to give D.C. students in-state rates at colleges outside the District – is no longer achieving its goal.

Congress created the DC TAG program in 1999 to expand college choices for D.C. residents.  Recognizing the unique challenges faced by the lack of D.C. statehood, Congress provided annual grants of up to $10,000 to cover the difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition at public four-year colleges and universities nationwide (and up to $2,500 per year for public community colleges).

dc tag license

Presumably when the law was originally passed, $10,000 was more than enough to cover the in-state vs. out-of-state difference. But as states have cut financial support of their public colleges and universities in recent years, colleges have jacked up both their in-state and even more so out-of-state tuition rates to compensate. The impact on D.C. students is that their $10,000 voucher is no longer enough to meet the difference in tuition prices. So just as Pell Grants have failed to keep pace with rising college prices, so have the DC TAG grants. And ergo, DC students have another barrier – specifically tied to where they live – to college affordability and completion.

What should one do? A few options are possible:

  1. Congress could raise the maximum DC TAG amount above $10,000 so the program fulfills its initial goal of providing DC students in-state tuition;
  1. Congress could raise the maximum DC TAG amount and implement additional minimum college quality provisions to fulfill the broader goal of providing DC students with a meaningful in-state public school option; or
  1. Congress could implement our Tough Love proposal whereby nonprofit (public and private) college dropout factories like UDC receive extra financial support and assistance to improve graduation rates. But if improvement doesn’t occur after a specified period of time, they lose access to federal financial aid and tax benefits.

Option 1 adheres most closely to the original goal for DC TAG. However, it functions as an inefficient stop-gap measure if college tuition continues to rise.  In that sense, it would operate similar to the Pell Grant program that continually fails to keep up with rising college prices. It also misses an opportunity to attack the broader problem that Cunningham noted – the lack of meaningful public options for DC residents.

Option 2 would help boost DC TAG’s purchasing power but also raise the bar on what makes a college eligible for DC TAG funds.  Currently all public colleges across the United States are eligible to receive DC TAG funds (a smaller $2,500/year grant to private HBCUs and private colleges in the DC Metropolitan area is also available). But that doesn’t have to be the case. DC TAG could implement minimum institutional eligibility requirements – say only public colleges that fall in the top 95 percent of colleges nationwide in graduation rates or student loan repayment rates may receive DC TAG dollars.

Option 3, in combination with Option 2, would further heighten resources and consequences for low-performing colleges.  Let’s help UDC and other college dropout factories improve to become a meaningful option for students instead of a provider most likely to leave them in a worse financial position than had they not enrolled in the first place.

DC residents should not tolerate the fact that the only honest-to-goodness four-year public college within city boundaries has a 6 percent four-year graduation rate.

A meaningful public college option for DC residents and others requires improving the city’s current university and expanding the application of that definition nationwide.

Is the city and Congress, including Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), tough enough to do it? Or will they continue to shortchange deserving DC students from meaningful college opportunities?