A college connection for D.C. students

( Bill O'Leary / The Washington Post ) - Lisa Devlin, second from right, of the DC-CAP works with McKinley High senior Christopher Holness, right, on college applications. Also pictured, from left: Kendra Pridgen, Raven Fortune and Jasmine Chestnut.

Like many students at Anacostia Senior High School in Southeast Washington, Clifford Taylor had college dreams but no college plan. His grades were marginal. By the start of his senior year in August, he hadn’t taken the SAT.

Most high schools in the affluent D.C. suburbs function as college-preparatory factories. By contrast, Anacostia Senior High produces only a few dozen graduates each year with grade-point averages of 2.5 or above, a minimum standard at even minimally selective colleges.

But Taylor wound up applying to six colleges, including Delaware State University, which he probably will attend. His plan came together after he connected with an adviser from a nonprofit organization that has transformed the college prospects of many D.C. students.

The D.C. College Access Program,which sponsors a citywide network of advisers who help students with college admissions and financial aid, is a rare example of sustained success in the perennially troubled city school system. Principals and school officials say the program fills an important niche.

Program officials say their work in the past decade has contributed to a doubling of the college attendance rate for the city’s public schools, to 61 percent of high school graduates. That is near the national average of 69 percent. The estimated share of those students who finish college within five years has climbed from 15 to 40 percent.

Founded in 1999, the program is based on a comparatively simple innovation: placing a college adviser in every regular public high school and, since 2008, every charter high school. Today, DC-CAP is the biggest initiative in a patchwork of efforts to promote college attendance in D.C. public schools.

“It mobilized a lot of people to support the notion that we needed to increase college-going in D.C.,” said Argelia Rodriguez, the program’s president and chief executive.

The program was the brainchild of a group of civic and business leaders including Donald E. Graham, chairman of The Washington Post Co., who also heads the DC-CAP board. Executives from companies such as US Airways, Lockheed Martin, Marriott and Fannie Mae were among the founding group, organized by Lucio Noto, the former director and vice chairman for ExxonMobil.

Before DC-CAP, the college admissions scene in D.C. schools seemed skewed. Three elite high schools — Banneker, Wilson and the School Without Walls — had full-time college counselors, Rodriguez recalled. Wilson, in the most affluent part of town, had the system’s only SAT testing site. City schools did not track college attendance. A survey of principals found that about one-quarter of graduating seniors intended to go to college.

Program leaders sought to create a college-going culture. They placed advisers in six schools in the 1999-2000 academic year. That yielded a college enrollment rate of 44 percent in those schools. The next year, the program expanded to all public high schools, and college attendance topped 50 percent for the system as a whole. Rodriguez and her staff opened SAT testing sites around the District.

Because of the program’s stature, DC-CAP advisers enjoy a level of access and authority unusual for an outside agency. Program directors built the first comprehensive database of college attendance data for D.C. schools.

Based in Northwest Washington, DC-CAP reported income of about $8.5 million from contributions, grants and investments in the fiscal year that ended June 2009, according to tax records.

The program was patterned after the Cleveland Scholarship Program, which had reaped impressive gains in college attendance by putting college counselors in public high schools. The Cleveland program also delivered small, strategic scholarships to bridge the gap between a student’s financial aid package and the cost of a public university. DC-CAP now awards nearly $3 million annually in similar grants.

Bringing the program to the District presented at least one major problem: The city’s high school graduates qualified for in-state tuition rates only at the University of the District of Columbia, an institution with numerous problems of its own. Students in Ohio, by contrast, had dozens of choices.

That issue helped spawn the D.C. Tuition Assistance Grant program. Promoters of DC-CAP found sponsors for a bill in Congress to pay the difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition for D.C. students attending public colleges in adjoining states.

Congress approved the bill in 1999. Today, the D.C. tuition grant offers up to $10,000 per year to D.C. residents at public institutions in any state, and $2,500 annually toward private schools in Washington and historically black institutions.

For D.C. families, the grant program “completely removed the excuse of money for not going to college,” said Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University.

DC-CAP advisers work with nearly all students who are are on track to earn a high school diploma, rather than a select population of high performers, which is unusual for a college access program. Advisers teach students to compete for admission and aid just like their counterparts in the affluent suburbs.

“We have to apply to five colleges,” said Rashida Wise, 17, a senior at Anacostia. “Under five is selling yourself short.”

Getting into college is only half the battle: Many D.C. students arrive with relatively low grades and weak academic preparation. The city’s composite SAT score for public students last year was 416 in reading and 407 in math, nearly 200 points below the national average.

To help keep students in college, DC-CAP leaders have placed representatives at key pipeline schools, including Trinity and the University of Maryland. Advisers track every college-bound student for up to five years after high school graduation, guiding them largely by telephone and e-mail.

At McKinley Senior High in Northeast Washington, the wall outside the DC-CAP office is papered with college acceptance letters this spring. Of this year’s 161 seniors, 130 are college-bound.

But even at McKinley, a selective magnet school, many students are in need of guidance.

Kendra Pridgen, 16, was ready “to apply to any school that popped into my mind,” she said. Her adviser helped her pick a potential major, sports medicine. That dictated her choice of schools. She applied to eight in all, including an early decision bid to attend the prestigious University of Miami. This fall, that is where she will be.

 
Read what others are saying