D.C. Council member Vincent B. Orange on Tuesday proposed turning the University of the District of Columbia into a tuition-free community college and renaming it after the late Marion Barry.
University officials said they had not been consulted on the proposals, and council colleagues offered initial support only for the idea of tuition-free community college — something President Obama last month called for nationwide.
Orange, an at-large Democrat and strong supporter of expanding the District’s struggling university, cast his proposals as a chance to keep more high school students on track to obtaining college degrees and to allow students to do so while remaining in the District instead of traveling elsewhere for costlier options.
He also argued that renaming the university after Barry, a former mayor who was on the D.C. Council at the time of his death, would be a fitting tribute to the city’s most well-known, if polarizing, figure.
“Marion Barry is an individual who should be properly honored, but also should be studied, should be researched, just like you would with [former President] Ronald Reagan or [former President George W.] Bush,” Orange said. “For the District of Columbia, this guy really had a major footprint in the city.”
Orange also said he saw no reason for Barry’s criminal record, including a conviction for cocaine possession while in office, to deter the city from renaming for him its institution of higher learning.
“It can serve as an inspiration for some, it can also serve as a way for others to get up and overcome their adversities — and for some, it can serve as a don’t-do-these-types-of-things, stay on this track,” Orange said.
Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) joined Orange in co-introducing the measure. But Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), who controls the committee dealing with UDC, called the proposal to rename the university after Barry “premature.”
Mendelson said he expects a commission to be formed to consider the appropriate way to honor Barry’s legacy.
The District’s equivalent of city hall, on Pennsylvania Avenue, is named after former council chairman John A. Wilson. The city’s convention center is named after former chief executive Walter E. Washington. And the new mayor, Muriel E. Bowser, recently dedicated the city’s summer jobs program, which began under the four-term mayor, as the Marion S. Barry Summer Youth Employment Program.
On the costlier side of Orange’s proposals, six council members joined in introducing his plan to offer free community college tuition to District residents.
Under the proposal, UDC’s roughly 2,500 community college students could have the now full-time yearly tuition and fees of roughly $2,400 paid by the city if they maintain a 2.0 grade point average, complete studies within two years, and participate in community service and mentoring programs. It was unclear Tuesday how many student’s Orange’s proposal would help. According to UDC statistics, roughly 70 percent of the school’s community college students already receive federal Pell Grants in excess of all tuition and fee costs.
Orange said the program could be the first to implement Obama’s America’s College Promise plan to spend billions nationwide over the coming decade to make associate degrees attainable for free by an estimated 9 million students.
For four-year degrees at the university, Orange also proposed a new financing plan for students that would eliminate up-front tuition and fee costs in exchange for a student’s commitment to pay a small percentage of his or her adjusted gross income following graduation for a set number of years.
“If we provide free tuition,” Orange said, “we will have a better workforce, a better-educated workforce and certainly a more informed workforce.”
Education Committee Chairman David Grosso (I-At Large) declined to comment on the proposals.
If Bowser funds a scholarship program the council passed unanimously last year, it could add to the case for Orange’s plan.
The council last year approved a taxpayer-funded college scholarship program known as D.C. Promise. The plan by former council member David Catania would offer high school graduates up to $7,500 per year to help pay for higher education almost anywhere. Orange said a separate measure is needed to make UDC free.
Whether or not his proposals advance, Orange’s actions Monday highlighted anew the evolving identity of the 5,400-student school and the gap between the aspirations of its backers and its financial realities.
Last year, D.C. subsidized the school with more than $66 million in funding.
Its community college was launched in 2009, with the idea of raising tuition for the four-year program and making it more prestigious.
Both the two-year and four-year programs, however, have struggled with low graduation rates.
Michael Rogers, UDC vice president of University Advancement, declined to comment, saying he was sure the school’s board would discuss the matters at its next meeting later this month:
“The University at this time has no comment on Council member Orange’s proposal for free tuition at UDC nor his proposal to rename the university after former Mayor Barry. We have not been advised of the proposals. We have not seen any proposed legislation. It would be premature to comment. Thank you.”