This featured article was written by a Student Journalist Program participant and was reviewed by mentors from The Washington Post prior to publishing.
Every August, millions of exhilarated, nervous 18-year olds tumble out of their parents’ houses and into American college dorms. For more than 80 percent of them, this transition occurs within the borders of their home state.
But in D.C., the numbers are flipped: According to the D.C. College Access Program’s most recent data, 80 percent of students from D.C. public or charter schools who attend college do so outside the District.
A variety of factors account for this difference. For one, D.C. is a city – less than a twentieth of the size of the smallest state, Rhode Island. A California kid can go to school a five-hour drive from home and still be in the same state. Although the District's 16 private colleges and universities attract thousands of students from around the world every year, any D.C. native hoping to get more than a few miles from home must leave Washington.
And D.C. students who want a public college education have far fewer options at home than their peers. While neighboring Maryland has six University of Maryland campuses plus eight other public colleges or universities, Washington’s only public institution is the University of the District of Columbia. UDC offers some strong programs, but it has struggled with threats to its accreditation in recent years and doesn’t have a national reputation.
The D.C. Tuition Assistance Program (DC-TAG) was created by Congress in 1999 in an effort to level the playing field for students raised in D.C. It offers students from the District grants of up to $10,000 to help cover the difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition at any public university in the country, and up to $2,500 a year at private schools in D.C. and historically black institutions nationwide. While the price of college has increased so much that DC-TAG no longer bridges the gap between in-state and out-of-state tuition, the grant still provides a strong incentive to leave the city.
A significant portion of D.C. public school students don’t attend college at all. Washington has a lower public school graduation rate than any state in the country, at 58 percent. (The national average for states is 75 percent.) Only 62 percent of the students who did get their diplomas in 2013 enrolled in college that fall, according to Tosha Lewis, vice president of retention and data management at DC-CAP.
But those students who do go to college right after high school go far and wide. In 2013, approximately 5,600 D.C. students attended more than 500 schools around the country.
Members of this student diaspora out of the District are often in for a shock when they get to college orientation and find that many of their peers have no idea that people actually live in D.C. It is not unusual for college freshmen born in the 202 to come home at winter break complaining about new friends’ naive interrogations: Do you know Obama? Do your parents work for the government?
“When I tell people that I can see the Capitol from the window next to my loft bed, they are appalled that a ‘normal’ kid lives so close to the Capitol,” wrote Zoe Gatti, a freshman at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, in a Facebook message.
Not only are many state residents unaware of the fact that DC has 658,893 residents who eat at restaurants, pray in churches and take the Metro to work, but they also seem not to know that those residents don’t have a vote in Congress, a fact that many of today's D.C. youth have been taught to resent practically since birth.
Growing up in D.C. is equivalent to being steeped in a political broth for 18 years. Here, national news is local news. While we aren’t all close personal friends with the Obamas, it’s not surprising to get off the Metro at Union Station and see Congress members striding by with Blackberries glued to their ears. The District-trained eye can tell the difference between a presidential and a vice-presidential motorcade, and any senior enrolled in D.C. public schools can name Marion Barry’s major accomplishments and explain how a bill becomes a law.
“In D.C., you kind of feel the pressure from those around you to know what’s going on, which is a great thing,” said Sofie Heffernan, a former District resident who attends the University of California at Berkeley. “I’ve met kids that grew up in San Francisco who don’t know anything about what’s going on in the rest of the world, or even the country.”
Morehouse College freshman D’Mani Harrison-Porter, who also grew up in D.C., said he has had similar experiences: “Some people I have met don't know there is a flag for their state, don't know their delegates. To this day, some of them barely even knew where to locate their state on the map, which is really hard to believe.”
College students from D.C. also seem to have a deep appreciation for the diversity that the city exposed them to. At Woodrow Wilson High School, alumna Ellie Sarnoff said, “You’ll have people whose parents are drug dealers and people whose parents are ambassadors. You just learn that there are different kinds of people. And definitely people I know from other places don’t have that same sort of perspective.”
Sarnoff said she realized just how much she appreciated D.C. when she started college at Wake Forest University in North Carolina.
She described the people she met there as “very upper-class, privileged, and self-centered. And it was very different from the demographics I had grown up with. They made a lot of really racist comments.” After just a semester she transferred to American University, where she’s been able to show off the District to a new group of more liberal friends.
That may be the strongest thread connecting college-bound students from D.C.: a sense of pride in their city. Every college student I know from Washington has a D.C. flag on their dorm room wall. Heffernan has a map of the city next to the flag, and for Christmas, her parents gave her a license plate that says “DC kid.” Both Harrison-Porter and Gatti plan to get D.C.-themed tattoos, and Heffernan says “at least half” of the people she knows already have them. A student she met at Berkeley told her, “I’ve never met anybody that’s so excited about their hometown.”
And though 80 percent of college-bound D.C. public school students are leaving the city for college, many of them say they plan to move back. Harrison-Porter wants to teach in a D.C. public school. Sarnoff wants to do social work here. Heffernan says she thinks it would be a good place to raise a family.
“I think everyone really wants to get away from home when they’re a senior in high school and they’re tired of their parents telling them what time to go home,” Sarnoff said. “But when I think of my future, I always imagine myself here.”
Said Harrison-Porter, “I love my District ’til the day I die.”