Da-Quon Rhones Credit: Darrow Montgomery

On a morning in early June, Anacostia High School alum Braswell Chappelle had a big interview for a summer internship at a local D.C. school. 

He thought it went pretty well. He’s home for the summer after his sophomore year at University of Arizona—his dream school. He’s prepared: He has a 3.8 GPA and he’s majoring in education. He has worked an internship before through a college scholarship and training program on writing and leadership skills. The scholarship, known as the “D.C. Achievers” program, requires students to have summer internships. Chapelle won an Achievers scholarship during his senior year of high school, and it pays most of his tuition. 

“It’s pretty much taking care of all my tuition and room and board,” he says of the $36,000 the D.C. College Success Foundation awarded him in 2015. “I knew it wasn’t quite a full ride, but pretty much. If you got it, you were kinda set. You wouldn’t have to pay a lot of loans back. It was like a relief feeling.”  

But the current crop of Anacostia High School students won’t have access to the same level of relief. D.C.’s College Success Foundation has ended the version of the program Chapelle entered. The Gates Foundation funds were only scheduled to last through 2018. Now the foundation is at work on “version 2.0,” shifting its focus away from providing for high school students to attend college to a more “comprehensive” program—and there’ll be less money to do it. 

The new program “will start in middle school and support them from seventh grade through college completion,” according to the foundation’s director of development Norma Barfield. The foundation worked with consultants on the new version and decided to fuse two of its existing programs—one aimed at aiding younger students and the other focused on college-bound high schoolers.

Like the current D.C. Achievers program, the “2.0” version “is designed to help low-income students from Wards 7 and 8 prepare for college and qualify for scholarships from numerous sources based on merit and interest,” Barfield adds. “We believe that by focusing on a continuous pathway of more comprehensive services, we’ll enable even more low income students to graduate from college and succeed in life.” 

But Foundation officials said that while they could not yet announce the new program’s new funding source, the money offered will be less than what is currently available. And a source with knowledge of the foundation said the new program would have roughly half the amount of money, with fewer kids served.

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Everyone loves a Cinderella story, the one about a kid from a poor, mostly black Southeast school defying that old “soft bigotry of low expectations” cliché to graduate and apply to college—a laudable achievement, to be sure. But how do the ones who make it afford it? 

Ten years ago, the nonprofit D.C. College Success Foundation and the city-funded D.C. College Access Program (D.C.-CAP) put a more than $100 million award from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation toward answering that question, making their fund the largest source of financial relief for college-bound students at those high schools. The scholarships provided up to $12,000 per year—sometimes for up to five years—to students from six high schools in Wards 7 and 8: Anacostia, Ballou, Thurgood Marshall, Friendship Collegiate Public Charter School, H.D. Woodson, and the Evans campus of Maya Angelou Public Charter School. 

Along with a similar, private-donor based scholarship offered through the foundation, more than 250 Ward 7 and 8 students received scholarships each year between 2007 and 2017, which is about 2,500 students total. Ninety-nine percent of the foundation’s scholarship recipients graduate high school on time, and they complete college at four-year schools within six years at more than four times the rate of their neighborhood counterparts and low-income students nationally.  

Da-Quon Rhones, 16, is a senior at Ballou High School this year and was accepted as one of the foundation’s “Ward 7 and 8 scholars”—what the foundation is calling the D.C. Achievers replacement program in the interim. He says is eligible to apply for an award of $25,000, a figure at least $10,000 less than what would have been possible in years prior. But before he received notice that he was a candidate to apply for the scholarship, college wouldn’t have been a possibility, and the sum is enough to give him and his mother confidence that he would be able to attend his school of choice. (Students in the program often get the award if they’re invited to apply.)

“Being a first generation student, it actually means a lot,” Rhones says. 

Still, those who work closely with these students, helping them navigate the scholarship applications, entrance exams, and the college admissions process—a labyrinth for most, a minefield for low-income students—say D.C. Achievers was the key ticket, the thing that gave students east of the Anacostia River the biggest boost. Unlike other programs, D.C. Achievers did not require a particularly high GPA. Rhones currently has a 2.5, while Chappelle graduated third in his class with a 3.8. To become eligible, a student only needs to meet the program’s definition of low-income (no more than $57,500 for a family of four), and show plans to complete a bachelor’s degree.

“Other scholarships are much harder to apply to and come with a lot more uncertainty,” says Paul Penniman, a community activist who runs Resources to Inspire Students and Educators, a tutoring program for students in Wards 7 and 8. Many of the students Penniman works with have been recipients of the D.C. Achievers scholarship, and his program often helps the students navigate the college admissions process.

The Foundation says its new version comes with benefits outside of funding that will make it even more of a boon for students, and they pledge to use “2.0” to help steer students in the direction of other scholarships that might be available elsewhere.

“We will be able to advise students on preparing their portfolios so they are not dependent on single scholarship opportunities but become qualified for and receive greater scholarship dollars from multiple programs,” Barfield says.

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The city and D.C. Public Schools system do offer other college scholarships, the most well-known being the D.C. Tuition Assistance Grant, known as “DC-TAG,” which awards any DCPS graduate up to $10,000 per year toward the difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition. The D.C. College Assistance Program’s “last dollar” award provides up to $2,000 for five years and is similar to D.C. Achievers in terms of requirements, although it is available to all public school students. Local nonprofits like the D.C. Quakers also award scholarships, as do area philanthropists like The Carlylse Group’s David Rubinstein.

In the college scholarship game, most states lag behind New York, which began offering free tuition to its public community and four-year colleges for in-state students through its “Excelsior scholarship” earlier this year.  But this spring, The Washington Post counted at least 85 municipal and state level initiatives aiming to cover the entire cost of tuition at community colleges, including some in conservative states like Tennessee. 

Thus far, the city has shown little interest in similar initiatives that target larger or even entire chunks of college costs. That could be thanks to the federally-funded D.C. TAG, considered a huge advantage for D.C. students since Congress first authorized the program in 1999. Penniman suspects there’s simply too much else on the city’s plate. 

“This would be a great program if they could make it work,” he said of the “2.0” plans. “Nothing can make up for the lost money.”

This article has been updated. The original version incorrectly stated the nature of Da-Quon Rhones’ scholarship. D.C. College Success Foundation accepted him in a program that makes him eligible to apply for a scholarship. He has not yet won it. The article also incorrectly stated his school. He attends Ballou High School, not Anacostia High School.