December 14, 2013

THE D.C. COUNCIL’S education committee has unanimously endorsed a proposal to create a new program of college scholarships. Interest in removing the financial bar that can prevent students from getting a higher education is understandable. But there are questions about how well-thought out this proposal is.

Would it undermine the existing and successful federally-funded program that helps D.C. families afford college? Would the money be better spent on giving students the skills they need for college? Or in building a more effective community college? The council needs to tread carefully in separating the program’s optics from its real benefits.

The D.C. Promise Establishment Act, championed by education chair and mayoral hopeful David A. Catania (I-At Large), would provide substantial scholarships, as much as $60,000, to D.C. students. The emphasis would be on low-income students but, according to Mr. Catania, middle-income students would also benefit. Promise money would only become available to students after other aid assistance was exhausted. Mr. Catania stressed to us that he aims not to supplant the D.C. Tuition Assistance Grant (DCTAG) program but supplement it. DCTAG provides subsidies to District students attending out-of-state public universities, private universities in the Washington area or historically black colleges.

It has helped more than 20,000 students enrollin college since its start in 2000 and, according to figures by the state superintendent of education, low income students are the main beneficiaries. In the academic year 2012-2013, for example, 57.9 percent of enrollment was from families with income up to $44,000. The worry about Mr. Catania’s proposal is that it will cause Congress to wonder why it should provide federal funds if the city, in a far better financial picture now than it was in 2000, can deliver the money.

Which brings up another question about the proposal: The bill would merely authorize the program without appropriating monies. Mr. Catania has promised a measured approach, including consultation with Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) about the possible danger of displacing federal monies. Let’s hope that the damage hasn’t already been done.