Photo by stevendepolo on Flickr.

Councilmember David Catania has proposed a tuition-assistance program that would help lower-income DC students pay for college. So-called “Promise” scholarship programs have been tried elsewhere, with mixed success.

Catania’s program, unveiled a month ago, would provide scholarships of up to $20,000 a year to students who both graduate from a DCPS or charter school and have spent at least 4 years in the system. Reaction to the plan at a public hearing yesterday was generally favorable, although some officials questioned how the District would pay for it. Yesterday Catania said it would cost at most $50 million a year, but other estimates have gone as high as $75 million.

Dubbed the “DC Promise,” Catania’s proposal bears some similarities to the “Kalamazoo Promise,” launched in Michigan in 2005 by a group of anonymous private donors. It’s inspired programs, or at least discussions of programs, in perhaps 25 other places around the country.

Catania proposes to provide tuition subsidies to families earning up to $250,000, although those with higher incomes and fewer years in the school system would get less than others. The maximum of $100,000, spread over 5 years, would go to those whose kids have been in DC public schools since 6th grade and who earn below 200% of the federal poverty threshold. The minimum award would be $3,000 a year.

$250,000 upper limit

Catania clearly sees the program as a way to level the playing field for those at the bottom end of the income scale. Given that objective, some would say that families earning a quarter of a million dollars a year shouldn’t qualify for assistance at all. On the other hand, it could provide an incentive for middle class families to stay in DC and keep their kids in public schools.

But others say that in DC, $250,000 doesn’t go all that far. At yesterday’s hearing, some called for the program to be expanded to all District students. And on the Urban Mom listserv, one parent complained that she’d made financial sacrifices to send her kid to private school because of the poor quality of her local public school.

"And now you’re saying that since my city failed me I’m going to be shut out of this program?” she wrote about DC Promise. “Since my city failed me once it’s failing me twice?”

Another program, the DC Tuition Assistance Grants (DC TAG), provides every DC family with $10,000 a year towards tuition at an out-of-state college, regardless of income or even whether a student is in public or private school. DC Promise would be in addition to that program, not instead of it.

Results in Kalamazoo

The Kalamazoo Promise is different from Catania’s proposal in purpose and scope. It’s open to any student in Kalamazoo’s schools regardless of income, with a sliding scale depending on the number of years a student has been in the system. A student who starts in kindergarten gets her entire tuition paid for at any public, in-state school, while a kid who enters in 9th grade gets 65% covered. Rather than trying to reduce inequality, the private donors who established the program were trying to shore up an economy that was hemorrhaging jobs.

Kalamazoo is obviously a lot smaller than DC, with a population of 74,000 and a total of a little over 500 graduating seniors a year. But it has its problems. A third of the population is below the poverty level, and one in 12 are homeless. The teenage pregnancy rate is among the highest in Michigan.

The results of the Kalamazoo program have been uneven. It’s apparently stopped white flight to the suburbs and kept the demographic mix in the schools stable. It’s also attracted students to the public schools, where enrollment has increased by 24%. And 90% of the kids who graduate from high school now go to college.

On the other hand, it hasn’t done anything to close the achievement gap. A third of students still drop out of high school before graduation. For African-American males, the rate is 44%, although black girls are doing better. And even the students who graduate from high school and start college often don’t make it through to graduation: as of a year ago, 2,500 students in 7 graduating classes had gotten scholarships, but fewer than 500 of them had gotten college degrees.

One problem may be that they’re not academically prepared for college, although the schools have gotten better in response to the Promise program. But another problem is that the program, like the proposal for DC, doesn’t cover room and board—or the income that students forgo when they choose to go to college.

The average out-of-state tuition at a public university this year is just over $20,000 a year, so it’s possible that Catania’s proposal would cover almost all of that (although tuition at public universities is rising faster than that at private ones). But the average room and board is close to $10,000. For many low-income families, that will be prohibitive.

On the other hand, average tuition at a two-year college is only a little over $3,000, and DC Promise funds could be used at any accredited community college or certificate program.

As the Kalamazoo experiment illustrates, free or almost-free college tuition isn’t a panacea for the ills that plague public schools. No doubt for at least some low-income students DC Promise would make the difference between college and no college. But whether the $50 million a year would be better spent on this program or other education initiatives isn’t clear. Some in Kalamazoo are thinking that the real focus should be on early childhood education.

One possibility would be to focus the DC program more narrowly, either by limiting it to families with lower incomes and/or to students who achieve a certain minimum GPA or score on college-entrance exams.

There’s something appealing about the simplicity and sweep of a universal, or near-universal, tuition assistance program. But unless a group of mysterious deep-pocketed philanthropists suddenly appears in DC, it would be easier to foot the bill if the program is trimmed. And for those making, say, $255,000 a year, a program limited to the truly poor might be easier to embrace.

Natalie Wexler is a DC education journalist and blogger. She chairs the board of The Writing Revolution and serves on the Urban Teachers DC Regional Leadership Council, and she has been a volunteer reading and writing tutor in high-poverty DC Public Schools.