The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion This D.C. program has helped thousands of children go to college. Its leader will be dearly missed.

Argelia Rodriguez, who is stepping down from leading the District of Columbia College Access Program (DC-CAP), on Oct. 9 in Washington, D.C. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

“We weren’t going to say you are not good enough, not smart enough . . . . Every child should be helped.” That is why the nonprofit that Argelia Rodriguez was asked to head 22 years ago to encourage D.C. public high school students to go to college set no eligibility requirements. Nothing was disqualifying: not grade-point average or family income, not citizenship status or juvenile criminal history. The result has been thousands of children having an opportunity they might never have had to build better lives.

Ms. Rodriguez will step down as president and chief executive of the District of Columbia College Access Program (DC-CAP) at the end of the school year. She has been the program’s only leader since its start in 1999, when a group of local business executives decided to do something about the dismal number of D.C. students going to college. Fewer than 1 in 3 D.C. high school graduates enrolled in higher-education institutions, and only 15 percent would graduate college within 10 years. The business executives, led by Donald Graham, then the publisher of The Washington Post, established the privately funded nonprofit DC-CAP and laid down a challenge to double the rate of D.C. students who enroll in college and triple the number of those who graduate.

To say that Ms. Rodriguez rose to the challenge is an understatement. Two decades on, about two-thirds of D.C. graduates go to college — close to the national average — and about half of them graduate within six years. The program has enrolled more than 35,000 students in college and awarded nearly $55 million in scholarships. Ms. Rodriguez convinced a hesitant D.C. public school system to partner in allowing the placement of counselors in schools to encourage students — mostly Black and poor — to apply to college, winning over their parents and guiding them through the process. “We had to get families and guardians to understand that to move the family generationally, they had to support the education and higher education of the kids,” Ms. Rodriguez told The Post’s Vanessa G. Sánchez.

Central to instilling a college-going culture in D.C. was congressional enactment of the District of Columbia Tuition Assistance Grant program, which allows D.C. high school graduates to pay in-state tuition rates at state colleges outside Washington. “DC-TAG put students in a new world,” said Mr. Graham. “They really could afford college, and DC-CAP counselors were there to offer advice on how to pay for it.”

But DC-TAG has not kept pace with the skyrocketing costs of tuition. Annual awards are capped at $10,000 and lifetime awards at $50,000; a Democrat-backed appropriations bill would, for the first time since the program was created, increase the annual amount, to $15,000, and the lifetime total, to $75,000. That would help. Meanwhile, DC-CAP is evolving. When it was created, DC-CAP staff had to fill the role of high school counselors, but that void has been filled so DC-CAP is putting renewed emphasis on college completion by partnering with schools that have shown success in graduating D.C. students. It is hard to imagine DC-CAP without Ms. Rodriguez at the helm, but she leaves the program well-positioned to take on new challenges.

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