Proposed D.C. Promise scholarship program could threaten D.C. TAG, Norton warns

Melina Mara/The Washington Post - Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s representative to Congress, is warning that a proposed D.C. Promise college scholarship could derail an existing federal scholarship program.

Ahead of a vote Tuesday to give District residents one of the nation’s few publicly financed college scholarship programs, the city’s delegate to Congress is sounding alarms.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) says the plan proposed by council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) could upend a long-standing federal scholarship program that’s unique to the city and has become key to how thousands of families budget for college.

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The fate of the federal program, known as the D.C. Tuition Assistance Grant program, or TAG, has been the only question looming over Catania’s D.C. Promise proposal, which has sailed through early test votes and appears headed for initial council approval on Tuesday.

The new citywide program would provide low-income high school graduates with up to $60,000 each for college, meant both to defray the cost of post-secondary education and as an incentive to keep students from dropping out of high school.

Holmes Norton says TAG has been “at risk” ever since congressional appropriators caught wind of the D.C. Promise bill. She said the latter could lead Congress to conclude that D.C. students no longer need TAG, which is designed in part to help students in almost any income bracket offset the higher out-of-state college costs they face when applying to schools around the country.

“Senate and House appropriators have made clear that the federal government will not pay for DCTAG if D.C. has a similar program at similar funding levels,” Norton recently wrote to council members.

Catania, who is weighing a mayoral bid as an independent, and Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) met with Norton’s staff last week to try to assuage concerns.

Mendelson said that he and Catania tried to emphasize that the Promise program would not duplicate TAG, and Catania offered major revisions to the program that he said would further make the distinctions clear.

But Norton’s office has not responded, and it appears the D.C. Council will head into Tuesday’s vote with the future of TAG — at least in Norton’s estimation — in doubt.

Since TAG’s inception in 2000, Congress has provided nearly 20,000 D.C. students with more than $317 million in college aid.

TAG provides city high school students with up to $10,000 per year to defray the cost of attending out-of-state public colleges or up to $2,500 a year to attend a private university in the Washington area or a historically black college.

“We don’t want to jeopardize D.C. TAG, which has helped so many students and been around so long,” said Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7). “We want all the help that we can [get] for our students.”

Mendelson said he hopes the council can get assurances from Norton.

“If people are concerned that we can’t put local dollars to help low-income students with college, then we will never be able to build upon TAG to help low-income students,” he said.

Catania on Tuesday plans to outline a downsizing of his proposal that includes reducing the total size of the scholarship to less than TAG; limiting universities where the money could be used; and requiring that for students receiving TAG, the Promise money would be supplemental, to cover the cost of books plus room and board.

Catania and Mendelson sent a letter to Norton last week outlining the amendments, including shrinking the maximum D.C. Promise award from $12,000 to $7,500 a year.

Students could apply D.C. Promise money toward some expenses at TAG-eligible schools, but not for tuition. And unlike TAG, which is available to almost all D.C. graduates, D.C. Promise would be available only to students from families earning below 200 percent of the area median income for a family of four, or about $215,000 per year.

It’s not clear whether the compromise is palatable to Norton, who plans to issue a public statement if the council moves forward with the bill, spokesman Daniel van Hoogstraten said.

“The threat to DCTAG is how much the D.C. Promise program would cost in total, not individual grant amounts,” van Hoogstraten wrote in an e-mail last week. “The appropriators only care about the total cost of D.C. Promise and whether it seems that D.C. can pay for its own college access program.”

Catania and Mendelson’s letter says that the revised Promise would cost $7.8 million next year, rising to $20.25 million in fiscal 2017. Congress appropriated $30 million for D.C. TAG this year.

Catania originally had envisioned a much larger program that would have cost the city more than $50 million annually.

Shrinking Promise much further would defeat the purpose of trying to help D.C. students meet the escalating costs of college, Catania and Mendelson wrote.

“We’re trying to be very careful in how we thread this needle so that we’re listening and trying to create a program that serves a dual purpose: that provides additional resources to kids so they can afford to go to college and at the same time doesn’t threaten existing federal resources to the city,” Catania said.

 
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