A popular federal college tuition aid program for District high school graduates has run into political problems on Capitol Hill, after a few senators have asked whether the program is too arbitrary, too expensive or too susceptible to abuse.
Congress last week voted to extend the D.C. Tuition Assistance Grant Program by two years, into 2007. But the extension was less than the permanent extension that supporters initially sought, and was reduced from a five-year re-authorization after late objections.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) placed a last-minute hold on the bill, exercising a senator's privilege of halting action on any legislation.
The program, which awarded its first grants in the 2000-2001 school year, provides up to $10,000 a year, or $50,000 over a lifetime, for D.C. high school graduates to attend participating public colleges and universities across the country at in-state or discounted tuition rates.
Students who choose to attend private facilities in Maryland and Virginia or historically black colleges and universities can receive up to $2,500 a year, or a lifetime total of $12,500.
Sessions protested that private schools everywhere should be eligible for the subsidy, not just those in Virginia and Maryland. He faulted the program for subsidizing private tuition rates less than public ones, and worried that undeserving people could try to abuse the benefit in the District.
"The principal of picking out certain colleges to benefit is not a good one. It ought to be more universal," Sessions said.
He added, "You could have a Senate staffer set up a residence, and then claim they want to go back to Alabama and want this to pay for it. I don't know. You can end up with the system being gamed."
Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), sponsor of the measure and chairman of the House Committee on Government Reform, said he agreed with Sessions and another, unidentified senator to revisit the law but remains committed to making the program permanent and would work on the issue next year.
"I sat down and talked to a couple of the senators involved and said, 'Give us two years to work it out.' You've got kids waiting in line right now who won't go to college if you guys in the Senate are futzing around," Davis said.
Gregory M. McCarthy, deputy chief of staff for policy and legislative affairs to Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), said if the program put private schools on equal footing with public ones, "it would balloon in costs beyond what is forecast," and the result would be smaller grants split among students.
Davis and McCarthy said supporters need to explain the positive impact of the program, which Williams said contributed to a 27 percent increase in the number of D.C. high school graduates enrolling as freshmen in U.S. colleges from 1998 to 2002, 1,750 compared to 2,230. The average growth among the 50 states was 5 percent.
"If this program's costs are growing it's because it's successful beyond our wildest expectations," McCarthy said. He acknowledged some management problems, but said, "If you compare it in its complexity to other federally funded post-secondary education aid programs, we think we have a very high level of customer service and efficiency, which we're proud of."
Davis concurred. "I just need to spend some time with the senators, maybe get them out and spend time with kids who have benefited. I don't think anybody with a heart wants to deprive kids of education," Davis said. "This is a great boon for D.C. and the kids. If you guys in Congress don't want to give them a vote in Congress, can't you at least let them go to school?"
Separately, Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) has written to D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi, saying "significant revision" is needed because the D.C. Tuition Assistance Grant Program is amassing large cash reserves while it requested for 2005 a 50 percent spending increase. The Government Accountability Office is reviewing the program.
Other members warn that the District keeps asking for more money for what conservatives call an open-ended federal entitlement, instead of using what Congress has allotted for the program. Supporters say Congress is only living up to a state's role for the city, providing access to good-quality higher education that the District cannot afford because of its small size.