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D.C. tuition aid program facing cut by federal lawmakers

Senators want to cut federal funding to a program that helps D.C. residents cover college costs. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

A tuition aid program that has helped thousands of D.C. residents afford college will face a substantial cut in federal dollars if a Senate panel gets its way.

The Senate Appropriations Committee introduced a spending bill Monday that would cut the program’s funding by one-fourth.

The federal government provides $40 million to the D.C. Tuition Assistance Grant program, which gives city students — who don’t have access to a robust in-state university system — affordable college options. The Senate plan, which mirrors legislation passed by the House, would whittle appropriations for the program to $30 million, and calls on the District to make up the difference.

Children of nonresident immigrants to get access to aid for D.C. college tuition

The proposed cut drew a sharp response Tuesday night from D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s office.

“You can’t say [you’re] for the middle class and then cut grants for college tuition,” the mayor’s spokeswoman, LaToya Foster, said in a statement. “We will stand shoulder to shoulder with Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton and fight to save full funding for this program, which has given a fair shot to thousands of young District residents.”

Senators say the 18-year-old program is not living up to expectations, with the college graduation rate among award recipients below the national average. About 51 percent of participants graduated within six years, compared to 60 percent of students nationwide, according to a Senate document explaining the rationale for the plan.

“It is important for the program to realize a return on its investment, wherein every grantee earns a college degree,” the Senate document said.

The committee is directing the U.S. Government Accountability Office to conduct a review of the program to assess trends in eligibility, enrollment, performance and outcome, and to consider other available resources for the program.

Since its inception, the tuition program has awarded more than $350 million and helped more than 26,000 students enroll at 578 colleges. Students can receive as much as $10,000 a year to attend public universities outside the city, or up to $2,500 to enroll in a private college. The grants are available to all District students from families earning below $1 million a year, but student advocates say the money makes the biggest difference for low-income residents.

“We really don’t have a lot of financial aid in D.C.,” said Argelia Rodriguez, president and chief executive of the District of Columbia College Access Program, a college advising group widely known as DC-CAP. “Being able to actually afford to go to these institutions is an important part of what [the tuition assistance program] is about, and taking that away would have a tremendous impact.”

Before the program started, few colleges and universities sent recruiters to D.C. public schoolsRodriguez said. The tuition aid program, she said, helped colleges recognize that D.C. students probably could afford to attend their institutions. That has meant greater access and choice for D.C. students.

The D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education, which oversees the tuition program, says the most recent data show that nearly 56 percent of award recipients who entered college in 2007-2008 graduated within six years. That number is higher than the overall six-year graduation rate for students from D.C. public high schools, the office said.

“The variables that are impacting D.C. kids are tremendous. Our families are economically disadvantaged and, in some cases, academically,” Rodriguez said. “Given where our families are starting, the fact that we are even close to the national average is a testament to the children who have taken advantage of the program.”

Audit of D.C. TAG tuition assistance program shows millions of dollars unaccounted for

The tuition assistance program has faced its share of troubles in recent years. A 2014 audit identified weak financial controls and management problems at the city agency that administers the program. At the time, officials in the superintendent’s office could not document or explain nearly $10 million in expenses since 2004. They say the problems documented in the audit have been addressed.