Guest speaker former President Bill Clinton speaks during Howard University's 145th commencement ceremony on May 11 in Washington. (Mark Gail/The Washington Post)

The number of students who enroll at Howard University with support from a special federal grant for District residents has declined steeply in the past decade, a trend that suggests the school faces a recruiting challenge in its home city.

The issue is significant because Howard officials are seeking to overcome budget problems that have sparked internal debate over fiscal management at the nation’s premier historically black university. Howard’s student enrollment dropped 5 percent last fall, contributing to its financial troubles.

As the university pushes to stabilize enrollment at about 10,000 students this summer, or grow it, there is urgency in the effort because every undergraduate represents potential revenue of about $22,700 in tuition and fees. One concern is how many will come from the city that has been Howard’s home since 1867.

Data from the city agency that administers the federally funded D.C. Tuition Assistance Grants show that the number of beneficiaries at Howard fell from 142 in the 2002-03 school year to 46 in the year that just ended — a 68 percent plunge.

Totals in that time also fell for Georgetown, American and Catholic universities, but much more modestly. They rose 36 percent at George Washington University, to 60 beneficiaries, and surged 73 percent at Trinity Washington University, to 392.

Grants for D.C. students at local universities

For private universities in the Washington area, private historically black colleges nationwide and public two-year colleges outside the city, the grant is worth up to $2,500 per student. But the limit has not risen over the years. That means the grant covers a smaller share of expenses when tuition rises, a possible factor behind the trends at universities in the District.

A second possible factor is that many students use a version of the federal grant worth up to $10,000 a year to attend public four-year universities outside the city.

A third explanation, some say, is the intensity of outreach within the city.

“Howard may not be recruiting in D.C. like it used to,” said Gregory Meeropol, interim assistant superintendent of postsecondary and career education for the District. “Other schools appear to be a little more aggressive in terms of going out and getting D.C. students.”

Meeropol said a Howard representative spoke with the D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education last fall about how the university could ramp up recruiting in the city, through appearances in high schools, college application fairs and other events. “We kicked around some ideas,” Meeropol said.

Wayne A.I. Frederick, Howard’s provost and chief academic officer since June 2012, disagreed with Meeropol’s assessment. “We’ve made a very, very comprehensive effort to get out into the schools and to bring students to the campus,” Frederick said. “Our back yard actually is very, very important.”

Frederick said he won’t be satisfied until every potential Howard student in the city comes to the university.

Asked about the university’s trend with D.C. tuition grants, he said: “Clearly our numbers have decreased. We would like those to be higher.”

Howard, described in a prominent college guide as “the flagship university of black America,” aims to draw high-performing students from across the country and serve those in financial need. About half of its undergraduates qualify for federal need-based aid.

Howard has grappled in recent weeks with internal criticism — from the vice chairwoman of its Board of Trustees and its academic deans — over the university’s financial management. But university President Sidney A. Ribeau and board Chairman Addison Barry Rand say Howard remains on strong footing. Ribeau was named president in 2008, succeeding H. Patrick Swygert.

Since 2000, more than 1,200 students have attended Howard with support from the D.C. tuition grants, the second-highest total in the city after Trinity Washington’s 3,100.

The grants do not account for every student in the city who goes to college, but they are an indicator of the college-going patterns of D.C. high school graduates.

D.C. students are eligible if they are 24 or younger, come from a family with annual taxable income of less than $1 million and meet certain other criteria.

About 5,100 students benefited from the grants last school year. Congress is debating funding for the program. A Republican bill moving through the House would cut annual funding in half, to $15 million. Democrats plan to block the cut in the Senate.

Many D.C. students use the grants to attend historically black colleges such as Morgan State, Virginia State, Delaware State and Bowie State. Others head to universities such as Penn State and Michigan.

In the District, Trinity Washington has been a leading recruiter of city students for many years. The Catholic women’s school has focused on helping “the women at our doorstep who could reap so many benefits,” university President Patricia McGuire said.

GWU, which has the public School Without Walls high school on its campus, also has pushed hard to recruit in its home city.

“The university has made it a priority to invest heavily in students from the District of Columbia,” said Forrest Maltzman, a senior vice provost at GWU. “Over the last couple of years, we have stepped up our outreach efforts. For example, we have an admissions staff member assigned to District schools who is really committed.”

At Georgetown, the number of grant beneficiaries reached 25 for several years during the past decade but slid to 19 last school year. “We do care deeply that we are enrolling and available to D.C. students,” Georgetown spokeswoman Rachel Pugh said.

Howard has extensive partnerships in the city, Frederick said. This summer, he said, the campus has hosted the nonprofit D.C. College Access Program, which helps public high school students. Howard has visited numerous D.C. schools in the past year, he said, hosted campus tours for local students and sent representatives to college fairs and church events to promote the university.

The campus also hosts the Howard University Middle School of Mathematics and Science, a public charter school that Frederick called a “crown jewel.” Former students of the school have enrolled at Howard — evidence, Frederick said, that the university is “reaching back and participating in the pipeline” to college.