By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 27, 2008 11:39 AM
He is a seven-term U.S. representative and a prominent Republican, but Tom Davis hasn't forgotten what it was like to grow up as one of five children in a struggling family, with a father serving time in prison.
"We had no money," Davis (R-Va.) said recently at a reception, recounting how he went to Amherst College thanks to a scholarship. "I understand what it means to be a young kid, when you talk about college, and make that a reality."
Davis is a champion of a federally funded initiative that has sent thousands of D.C. residents to college. He and other supporters of the D.C. Tuition Assistance Grant Program were honored at the reception this month in the Senate.
The program, launched in 2000 and recently renewed, provides tuition subsidies of up to $10,000 per year to D.C. residents to attend public colleges elsewhere in the country. It offers smaller amounts to those choosing private colleges in the D.C. metropolitan area or historically black colleges around the nation. It aims to compensate for the District's lack of a full public university system.
The program is credited with helping nearly double the percentage of graduating high school students from the District who go to college, from 30 percent in 1999 to 57 percent in 2006.
"We're going on 11,500 kids that have been sent to college because of your work," Argelia Rodriguez, an official involved with the program, said as she draped a gold medal around Davis's neck, amid applause from business executives, legislators and congressional staff members in the chandeliered reception room.
Congress voted in the fall to extend the program for five years, adding a condition: that families with taxable incomes above $1 million not be eligible. That is expected to affect a small number of students each year, legislators said. The program is open to District residents under 25.
Nearly 4,500 qualifying students received the scholarships for 2006-07, the most recent figures available. Congress appropriated $35 million for the program this year, about double what it received when it was created.
But the students receive more than just financial aid.
A companion program funded by private businesses and foundations provides counselors to D.C. high schools to guide the students through the maze of college and financial aid forms. After the students are in college, they can receive mentoring and academic help through that same privately funded initiative, the D.C. College Access Program.
The scholarship program has offered a lifeline to students such as Brianna Jenifer, 17, a senior at the Friendship Collegiate Academy charter school in Northeast, whose parents are disabled.
"It's really helping me out as far as the money part of going to college," said Jenifer, who plans to attend Prince George's Community College in the fall. In addition, counselors in the college-assistance program helped her select a school and find financial aid, she said.
Jenifer will be the first in her family to attend college. It was "shocking to me" to learn the scholarships were available to nearly all D.C. high school graduates, she said.
Davis was head of the House subcommittee overseeing D.C. affairs when a group of local business executives, including Washington Post Co. Chairman Donald E. Graham, approached him with the idea for the scholarships. D.C. residents were paying more than twice the national average to go to a four-year college because they had to pay out-of-state rates at many universities.
"I had no idea it would be this successful," Davis said in an interview. "We knew there was a problem and we had to send the right signal."
He guided the legislation through the then-Republican-controlled House, with co-sponsors Rep. Constance Morella (R-Md.) and D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D). George Voinovich (R-Ohio), head of the Senate subcommittee on the District, sponsored the legislation in that chamber. President Bill Clinton signed it in November 1999.
"When I came here, I was shocked that kids in the District didn't have the opportunity to go on to higher education" at favorable tuition rates, except for the University of the District of Columbia, Voinovich said at the reception.
The program's impact was quickly demonstrated. Between 1998 and 2002, there was a 23 percent increase in the number of D.C. residents reported as first-time freshmen by colleges and universities around the country, said Thomas J. Kane, a Harvard University economist who studied the program.
While other states have scholarship programs for residents, "I don't know of any other . . . that has had a larger impact on college enrollment," Kane said.