D.C. tuition grants may face budget cuts

Federal budget cuts and surging demand for student aid may limit awards this year from a popular D.C. scholarship fund that aims to provide up to $10,000 annually for residents to attend public colleges outside the city, officials said Wednesday.

Exactly how much the typical scholarship from the D.C. Tuition Assistance Grant program could be reduced is unknown.

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The grants, a cornerstone of aid for the city’s college-bound students, offset the out-of-state markup that D.C. students would otherwise pay to attend public colleges elsewhere. They also cover up to $2,500 a year for students who attend private colleges and universities in the D.C. area, or private, historically black colleges nationwide.

This school year, about 6,000 students are projected to receive grants. But questions are emerging about the program’s finances for the next school year.

Officials in the D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education, which administers the federal grants, are scrambling to gauge the impact of an annual funding cut estimated at $1.5 million because of the “sequester.” Ordinarily, the government provides $30 million a year for the grants. President Obama wants to raise that to $35 million.

The sequester, an automatic cut, hit a host of government programs starting March 1. In addition, officials said, there appear to be hundreds more students applying for grants than in previous years.

As a result, D.C. officials said, they started urging students this week to finish grant applications by Tuesday to help the city plan disbursements.

That push, as well as confusion over the agency’s intentions, initially stoked fears this week among high school counselors and parents that students would have to rush to get their applications turned in or risk losing out.

D.C. officials said, however, that the application deadline of May 31 remains unchanged. Still to be determined is how much money will be available for each eligible student.

“Some of those students may not get the maximum amount, or the amount they used to get,” said Athena W. Hernandez, communications director for the superintendent’s office.

D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) said questions about the grants are frustrating.

“It’s a super big deal to parents” if the grants are reduced, Cheh said.

She noted that May 1 is a key deadline for students to decide where to go to college.

“Sometimes $5,000 can make a difference — are you going to go here or there?” she said. “Parents and students need to have some certainty here, and they’re not getting it.”

In February, federal budget issues led to a temporary suspension of scholarship funds for grant recipients now in college. That problem was solved in March when Congress enacted a spending bill for fiscal 2013.

Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University, a Catholic women’s school in Northeast Washington, said about 250 students rely on the grants. For them, McGuire said, the money is desperately needed.

Too often, she said, students who should seek grants don’t apply “because it’s too confusing, too much convoluted paperwork.”

 
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