In today’s paper, I write about the conspicuous success of the District of Columbia College Access Program, an initiative that has, according to program officials, driven up the district’s college attendance rate from 30 percent to 61 percent and boosted the college completion rate among those students from 15 percent to 40 percent.
There are access and completion initiatives in the schools, most of them making a difference. What seemed different about DC-CAP is the magnitude of that difference.
It looks more like the sort of program one might see in a small, close-knit community than in a major metropolis: a city-wide effort to change the fortunes of public high school students, initiated by local captains of industry (including Donald Graham of The Washington Post) and installed in every high school. Since 2008, DC-CAP’s portfolio has included charter high schools.
The founding goal of DC-CAP was to double the number of D.C. students who got in to college and to triple the number who graduated.
It appears the program has more than met the goal, although the scarcity of pre-DC-CAP data make it hard to be certain.
At least 600 D.C. students from the Class of 2004 have finished college, according to the most recent data kept by the program. No one apparently kept such statistics before DC-CAP, but anecdotal evidence suggests the district produced 100 to 200 college graduates a year in the late 1990s, when the program began.
D.C. public high schools are improving on some other measures, but slowly. Roughly three-fifths of D.C. public high school students graduated in 2007, about the same share as in the late 1990s, according to an independent 2010 analysis by the publication Education Week. The District’s internal graduation data show significant improvement over the last few years. (Most of DC-CAP’s gains, by contrast, came several years ago.)
DC-CAP also spawned DCTAG, the tuition assistance grants that are the key to affordable college attendance for thousands of lower- and upper-income Washingtonians. That legislation passed, Graham and others said, because of the impressive array of Maryland and Virginia corporate leaders who had lined up behind it.
One looming question is whether the city’s college attendance rate can continue to rise past the current 61 percent for public and charter high schools. The national college attendance rate is 69 percent.
“We’re at a wall,” said Argelia Rodriguez, CEO of DC-CAP, “and that’s not going to change until we get more students entering the 12th grade.”
Rashida Wise, 17, is a senior at Anacostia High School, one of several D.C. public high schools that sent comparatively few students to college before DC-CAP.
Most Anacostia graduates will qualify for a full $5,550 need-based grant from the federal Pell program, as well as Tuition Assistance Grants and up to $2,070 a year in “Last Dollar” aid from DC-CAP.
Even so, Anacostia students worry about funding.
“I’m just scared about getting where I’m going and then running out of money,” Wise said, speaking inside the small DC-CAP office at her school.
“But remember this,” said LD Ross, a DC-CAP administrator who was visiting Anacostia that day. “Your housing is paid for, and you’ve got a meal plan. You don’t need a lot of money to make it in college.”
Senior Jonathan Taylor, too, is inordinately concerned about money, and about what job will await him when he graduates. He likes the looks of Delaware State University because of “their business program: they say 100 percent of the graduates get a job.”
Even at McKinley Senior High in Northeast, a selective magnet school, many students are naïve about their college prospects.
“They may come in because they saw Stanford on TV, or Duke,” said Lisa Devlin, the school’s DC-CAP advisor. “We try not to take that dream away from them. But we also start to give them a realistic starting point.”
Several schools, including Delaware State, Norfolk State in Virginia and North Carolina A&T State have seen their D.C. student enrollment double under DC-CAP.
Many of those students are underprepared. Over the years, the organization’s college mentoring has become increasingly important in helping D.C. high school graduates keep up and stay in school.
That help is important, said Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University, because of the time and expense involved in educating college students who are not college-ready.
“The education of D.C. students requires a much larger amount of support than most colleges are accustomed to giving students,” said McGuire, whose university specializes in bringing smart but under-educated students up to standard with a freshman core curriculum.
Jonathan Thomas, 20, was a star student at Friendship Collegiate Academy, a charter school in Southeast. But when he arrived at Penn State three years ago, he struggled.
“I thought that I was fully prepared to come to college and excel,” he said. “But especially here, I found out I wasn’t really as prepared as I thought.”