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Admission Possible?

D.C.’s college tuition grant program hasn’t sent District kids to the four corners yet, but it’s getting there.

On the 10th floor of One Judiciary Square, a paper sign has been taped to the white plastic office directory. It reads “Office of the Tuition Assistance Program” and points down the hall with a big blue arrow. It’s a small piece of paper, but a big symbol of how rapidly the program to implement a new college grants program for District residents has been slapped together.

Led by former education-lobby staffer Laurent Ross, the Office of the Mayor’s D.C. College Tuition Assistance Grant Program takes calls from high-schoolers and cash-strapped college students from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., dispensing advice on how to apply for financial aid, prove residency, and otherwise take advantage of the new program, which will allow them to attend public colleges across the country at in-state tuition rates. All in all, the room with the makeshift sign offers locals much happier news than such bureaucratic neighbors as the Office of Intergovernmental Relations, the Office of Boards and Commissions, and the Mayor’s Correspondence Unit.

Funded to the annual tune of $17 million, the college program was authorized by the D.C. College Access Act of 1999, passed by Congress last November. The legislation allows recent D.C. high school grads, public and private, to pay in-state rates at 96 eligible colleges and universities in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia by making up the difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition—up to $10,000 per year for five years. The law also provides up to $2,500 per year to students attending private colleges in D.C., such as Georgetown University or George Washington University, or three historically black colleges in Virginia.

So far, the District hasn’t exactly supplied a class of applicants big enough to fulfill naysayers’ prophecies about the wholesale migration of local youths to places like Charlottesville, Va. But even though the 525 students who have applied for the grants for next year might not fill a dormitory at a Midwestern land-grant university, Ross says he expects the office to be funding 3,450 students per year shortly. “We want to have more applications,” he says. “It’s my feeling that people know about the program, but people don’t know how to apply.”

Last week, D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton made a bid to dramatically raise student interest in the program—and, claim members of the tuition office, spurred a small avalanche of applications. She declared that students attending state schools outside of Maryland and Virginia had been eligible for the grants all along and that the grants would no longer be restricted to students attending local schools.

The expansion of the program to a national scale had been written into finished legislation, sponsored by Norton and Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), as a conditional option. But although Norton’s office says that she always assumed the program would eventually fund students at any public state university they wished to attend, Ross notes that the expansion hinged on several prerequisites.

D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams, says Ross, first had to show that District residents were having trouble getting into colleges in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. (Ross says he has analyzed U.S. Department of Education data, which shows that this is the case.) Williams had to consult with the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate. And the Department of Education and the mayor had to agree that expanding the program to the whole country would not cost more than the amount already allocated for the program.

These conditions were finally met last week, according to Norton’s office. And, speculates Ross, Norton may have made her announcement to “speed up” the anticipated Williams sign-off on expanding the program.

A mayoral order to expand the program is now sitting on Williams’ desk, and the tuition office has been instructed to operate as if it had already been signed. If you believe the hype, alumni associations for District high schools like Coolidge and Ballou could soon be operating from Ann Arbor, Mich., to Oxford, Miss. “Some of them must have been waiting by the door with track shoes on,” says the tuition office’s Ken Howard of the sudden rise in calls from students wanting to study out of D.C.

LaRon Roach was at the office on a recent Tuesday morning to drop off her application and talk to a financial aid officer. As the officer fielded a call from an applicant looking to prove residency—”Do you have a bill in your parent’s name from a utility company? What about a driver’s license?…Neither of your parents have driver’s licenses?”—Roach explained how news of the initial area grants had helped convince her to transfer from the University of South Carolina at Columbia to the University of Maryland for her junior and senior years.

“It was pretty costly to go away,” Roach says. “This was one of the parts of why I transferred.”

Roach—who says she also had academic reasons for transferring—heard about the program while living in South Carolina. Closer to home, it seems plenty of D.C. utility-bill recipients and driver’s-license-holders are also hip to the grants— and making application decisions based on them.

Just ask Jack Blackburn, dean of admissions at the University of Virginia (UVA). “I think cost is one of the factors, and the new grants will make us and other out-of-state colleges—public and private—much more attractive,” he says. During a year when the total number of applicants for the 2,930 freshman slots dropped, applications from D.C. public-school students to UVA showed the first significant increase in five years.

According to George Stovall, UVA’s director of institutional studies, “There was a very significant increase in number of applicants and offers from public schools.” Between fall 1999 and fall 2000, the number of D.C. public-school students who planned to enroll at UVA increased from two to six, offers went from seven to 21, and applicants increased from 21 to 31. This year, public-school students made up 35 percent of applicants and 50 percent of D.C. students planning to attend in the fall.

True, the number of D.C. applicants is still tiny compared with, say, the number of applicants from Virginia’s somewhat smaller capital, Richmond. And even though District citizens can go to UVA for the same rate as Virginians, they still have to make it past the stricter admissions standards for out-of-state enrollment. But the change this year is still dramatic, says Stovall: From 1996 to 1999, D.C. public-school students made up only 26 to 30 percent of applicants from the District and only 0 percent to 30 percent of those able to enroll. (In 1997, all D.C. students attending UVA as freshmen had gone to private high schools.)

The grants, says Stovall, “certainly would have something to do with accepted offers.”

Ross says he’d be surprised if any school saw more than a 10 percent increase in admissions from D.C. because of the new grants. Marcelle Heerschap, dean of admissions at Virginia’s George Mason University (GMU), has seen at least that much of an increase at her school. And she’s seen a doubling in applications from D.C. “The change for us has been significant,” says Heerschap. “We have had over a 100 percent increase in applications from fall 1999.” Whereas 61 D.C. kids applied to enter George Mason in 1999, 124 applied for fall 2000. Thirty-four students have accepted admission for fall of 2000; between 13 and 23 D.C. students enrolled in the falls of 1997, 1998, and 1999.

Heerschap credits the increase not just to the grants, but to the new outreach program to D.C. kids the grants inspired. “Once we knew that the bill was going to go into effect, we were more proactive” about recruitment, she says. “We met with members of the D.C. College Access Program and also with numbers of guidance counselors in the D.C. community to talk with them about GMU specifically.” Administrators from schools such as Virginia Commonwealth University

also report a miniboom in new students from D.C.

But despite these large percentage increases, the absolute numbers of students admitted to these selective Virginia schools remains small. Six public-school students at UVA may be an increase, but it’s bubkes when you consider that around 2,800 students are D.C. public-school seniors this year and 2,500 are expected to graduate.

Meanwhile, in-state tuition will apparently lure D.C. students only so far. Salisbury State University, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, has seen no change in admissions from the new grants. Jane Dane, dean of admission and financial aid, says that for the fall 2000 semester there were 15 District applicants, three offers of admission, and only one student who accepted an offer. In 1998, there were 17 applicants, seven offers, and two freshman enrollees.

The fact remains that most D.C. public-school students are not going to be admitted to the more competitive local universities—one more reason the program will soon be officially expanded nationally. Of the 3,126 D.C. residents who start college across the country each year, nearly 600 start as freshmen at the University of the District of Columbia, and another 200 or so begin at Prince George’s Community College. And city officials say more money will take these students only so far. “There are a lot of colleges out there that are not first-tier universities,” says Ross. “There are a lot of institutions that are out there to accept D.C. students.” CP