Federal budget battles freeze financial-aid payments for over 1,300 D.C. youths

March 20, 2013

The months-long federal budget showdown on Capitol Hill has forced District officials to freeze college financial-aid payments for more than 1,300 D.C. high school graduates, leaving those students struggling to pay tuition and make ends meet.

The federally funded D.C. Tuition Assistance Grant program provides more than 6,000 high school graduates with up to $10,000 a year to defray the cost of attending an out-of-state public university or up to $2,500 a year to attend a private university in the Washington area or any historically black private college in the United States.

Like all federal programs, the $35 million DC TAG program has been funded since Oct. 1 through a continuing resolution — a stopgap budget measure that Congress agreed to when it couldn’t reach a longer-term compromise.

City officials who administer DC TAG said they had to halt payments to students on Feb. 28, when the program exceeded expenditures allowed under the conditions of that continuing resolution.

Congress is now haggling over another continuing resolution, which must pass by March 27 if a government shutdown is to be avoided. The House and Senate have each passed a version of the bill and are expected to reconcile their differences in the next few days.

Should the bill pass, city officials said, DC TAG recipients will get the full aid they’re due, starting March 28.

“We have no reason to believe that we won’t be able to continue to make any and all payments,” said Gregory Meeropol, a deputy assistant superintendent with the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, the agency that oversees the grants program.

The budget wrangling can seem like abstract noise, but it has taken a concrete toll on some students who have been left in limbo without DC TAG payments for the past month.

Towson University senior Sharnita Brice receives $5,000 each semester through DC TAG. She also holds a part-time job, receives scholarships from Towson and private foundations, and has taken out an estimated $40,000 in student loans. Brice needs every cent to pay her bills, she said.

“I can’t ask my mother for money,” said Brice, the youngest of four children and a 2009 graduate of Woodrow Wilson High School. “She’s struggling, herself — I’m trying to help her.”

Brice normally would have received her spring DC TAG payment in late February, she said, but it never arrived. In early March, Towson’s financial aid office told her that the funds would be delayed.

Now, in the middle of midterm season, she is staring down her last $300, wondering where she’s going to get the money to pay rent, buy groceries and keep the electric company from turning off her lights.

Already behind on some payments, she said she has received warnings that the utilities may be turned off and a notice that she’ll face eviction if she pays her rent late in April.

“I’m just stuck. I’m scared,” said Brice, who is a double major in family studies and psychology and aims to start a mentoring organization for young women when she graduates in the fall. “I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

Next year’s DC TAG payments may be affected by the across-the-board federal budget cuts known as the sequester, but Meeropol said officials are holding off on alerting families until they know what the precise impact will be.

Meeropol recommended that students facing a squeeze because of the missing DC TAG payments seek help from community-based organizations or groups dedicated to supporting college-going youths.

Emma Brown writes about D.C. education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.
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