Ted Leonsis, owner of the Washington team known as the Caps, is taking a leading position at an organization with a similar name and nothing to do with hockey: D.C. CAP, a nonprofit group that helps students in the District get into and graduate from college.
The popular owner of multiple District sports teams and former senior AOL executive has been named the new chairman of the D.C. College Access Program board, where he hopes to continue building bridges to college for poor students. He joined the board in 2010.
Leonsis is involved in many charitable causes, including youth sports, military veterans and homelessness. Leonsis said D.C. CAP’s mission strikes a personal chord for him because he was the first in his family to go to college. He grew up in Brooklyn and in Lowell, Mass., where he graduated from high school, and then went on to Georgetown University.
“I have certainly witnessed the power of scholarships and mentors that push you to stay in college,” Leonsis said in an interview Tuesday.
Leonsis will succeed Donald E. Graham, D.C. CAP’s founding chairman and the former chairman of The Washington Post Co.
Graham said D.C. CAP has been at the center of his philanthropic life for 16 years, and he plans to stay active on the board. He also helped found a college scholarship fund for children of undocumented immigrants last year, a “passion,” he said, that stemmed from his work on college access. But as he approaches his 70th birthday, Graham said it was a good time to make a leadership change at D.C. CAP. He called Leonsis the ideal person for the job.
“He’s raring to go, and he understands what’s at stake,” Graham said.
Graham was part of a group of business and philanthropic leaders who lobbied for the passage of federal legislation in 1999 that created the D.C. Tuition Assistance Grants, which provide up to $10,000 per year or $50,000 per student to help young people from the District afford college tuition outside of the city.
The group went on to found D.C. CAP through a private- public partnership geared to helping as many students as possible reach higher education in a city where, for many families, the expected contribution on college financial aid forms is zero.
The organization raises millions of dollars for scholarships. It also funds a college counselor in every city public school and holds college-orientation seminars for families. Through a college retention program, counselors stay in touch with students once they make it to campus and help them weather the financial, academic and social struggles that can cause students to drop out.
In 1999, fewer than 1 in 3 D.C. high school graduates enrolled in college, less than half the national average. Of those who enrolled, an estimated 15 percent went on to graduate, according to available data.
Today, more than 62 percent of D.C. high school graduates enroll in college — on par with the national average — and about 44 percent are graduating in six years.
Leonsis said he wants to keep those numbers increasing until all students in the District have the chance to get a college education.
Leonsis said he hopes to “create a culture of philanthropy” among the “young creative class” of the city’s professionals, urging investment in public education and college opportunities.
“We are a wealthy community. We can provide the tools and the means . . . to help graduating seniors apply at higher rates and to be accepted and graduate from college,” Leonsis said. “We know that a first predictor of lifelong success is a college education.”