IN THE spring of 1999, management and education consultant Argelia Rodriguez got a phone call that would eventually transform the lives of thousands of D.C. students and families. “We need to fix this city. We need to give every student an opportunity to go to college. And I want your help to do it.” That entreaty from Donald E. Graham, then publisher of The Washington Post, resulted in the creation of D.C. CAP, a program so successful in enrolling people in college and graduating them that it’s no exaggeration to say it has changed the educational landscape of Washington.
This week’s announcement that Mr. Graham, 69, is stepping down as chairman of the District of Columbia College Access Program and will be succeeded by Washington sports team owner Ted Leonsis provides an opportunity to take stock of this remarkable program and Mr. Graham’s singular contribution.
Mr. Graham, now with no connection to this newspaper, heads Graham Holdings Co. When we reached out to him to discuss D.C. CAP, in fairly typical fashion he began reeling off the names of other local business executives who he said deserve credit, including Lucio Noto of ExxonMobil, Vance Coffman of Lockheed Martin and J.W. “Bill” Marriott Jr. Mobilizing around the urgency of allowing Washington youth to realize their potential, they moved on two fronts: They created D.C. CAP (installing Ms. Rodriguez as president and chief executive officer) to raise money for scholarships and support, and they lobbied Congress to create the D.C. Tuition Assistance Grant program, which provides subsidies so that D.C. students can attend out-of-state public universities, private universities in the Washington area or historically black colleges at an affordable price.
The results, as The Post’s Michael Alison Chandler catalogued this week, have been stunning. In 1999, fewer than 1 in 3 D.C. high school graduates enrolled in college, and a mere 15 percent went on to get a degree. Today, 62 percent of high school graduates enroll in college — on par with the national average — and 44 percent graduate. D.C. CAP is unique among college access programs in that every student — regardless of family circumstance or academic achievement — is eligible, but those who have benefited most are from low-income, minority, single-parent households. Many have been the first in their families to attend college.
Scholarship money alone could not have achieved this record. The program offers high school counseling, then helps college students register and stays with them as they adjust to higher ed. That other programs have adopted similar methods is further evidence of how Mr. Graham helped pioneer an idea into something with lasting significance. Not many other individuals have had such a positive impact on so many lives — and with so little self-congratulation.
The energetic Mr. Leonsis seems like an ideal choice to pick up the torch. He says he will do his best to match Mr. Graham’s passion. Given Ms. Rodriguez’s still-to-do list, which includes getting more students into science and related studies and improving job placements, it seems clear that resting on the laurels of D.C. CAP, no matter how well deserved, won’t be an option.