Congressional negotiators have secured full federal funding for a tuition aid initiative that helps D.C. residents attend college, rejecting a White House bid to cut support for the popular DC Tuition Assistance Grant.
In the $1.3 trillion federal spending agreement released Wednesday night and set for votes ahead of a Friday deadline, lawmakers designated $40 million for the program. It gives District students — who don’t have access to a robust in-state university system — affordable college options.
The money would maintain the program’s current funding levels for the third fiscal year in a row. The House passed the spending bill Thursday afternoon; the timing of the Senate vote was not clear.
“Despite facing incredibly tough conditions for these budget negotiations, District residents got what they deserved in this omnibus,” D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) said in a statement. “I am particularly relieved that we were able to face down the administration and secure the full $40 million funding for” the tuition program.
Norton had said she was confident she could protect the tuition assistance program after the White House proposed its elimination in the fiscal 2019 budget released in February. At the time, Congress had just struck a two-year budget deal that Norton said rendered President Trump’s plan “dead on arrival.” Though Wednesday’s 2,000-page spending agreement covers funding only until Sept. 30, the bipartisan support for the tuition program — widely known by the acronym DCTAG — bodes well for its continued funding.
“Together with Congresswoman Norton, we fought to restore DCTAG to $40 million in the fiscal 2018 omnibus,” D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said in a statement. “We will stay woke, stand up and fight back to ensure full funding for DCTAG remains in 2019 and beyond. DCTAG is critical to ensuring our residents have access to higher education and are on the pathway to the middle class.”
The tuition assistance program has long enjoyed bipartisan support on Capitol Hill. Congress spurned proposed cuts to the program in 2013, when President Barack Obama’s administration considered sacrificing some of its budget.
Still, the Senate Appropriations Committee introduced a spending bill in November seeking to reduce funding by one-fourth. Lawmakers complained that the 18-year-old program failed to live up to expectations because 51 percent of award recipients graduated within six years, compared with 60 percent of students nationwide. The D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education, which oversees the tuition program, has argued that the most recent graduation rate is 56 percent, which is higher than the six-year graduation rate for students overall from D.C. public high schools.
“TAG is probably one of the most transformative things that’s happened to D.C. kids in terms of education,” said Argelia Rodriguez, president and chief executive of the District of Columbia College Access Program, a college advising group known as DC-CAP. “Being able to sustain the pipeline that the legislation established is critical. It means students will have access, economic support and the choice of education around the country.”
Over the years, the tuition program has provided $350 million to help more than 26,000 District students attend and graduate from college. 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 in the D.C. metro area or at any historically black college or university across the nation. Award recipients have enrolled at 578 colleges across the country.
The grants are available to all District students — except high-income families — but student advocates say the money makes the biggest difference for low-income residents. The annual family income cap has shifted; it once was $1 million but, in more recent years, has stood between $750,000 and $777,000.
Rodriguez said she fielded questions about the future of the program from parents. Many wanted to know what actions they could take to fight the proposed funding cuts or expressed concern about how the program’s elimination would affect their child’s ability to attend college.
“D.C. doesn’t have financial aid resources. The fact that this was even on the table was frightening to many parents because it means the likelihood of their children enrolling and graduating from college decreases,” she said. “A lot of our parents are low-income, so without this program the door is closed for their children.”