After living around Dupont Circle and Adams Morgan for three decades, Michael Caplin packed his bags and moved his family across the river to McLean two years ago. An intimate session with his calculator proved to Caplin that when his son graduated from high school, he would get financially steamrolled by what some might call D.C.’s hidden tax.
Chevy Chase, D.C., parent Grant Stockdale paid his first installment of the tax more than $30,000 at the end of an eight-hour drive this past September from D.C. to Providence, R.I., at the bursar’s office at Brown University.
“What you realize is that by being a resident of the District, you’ve bought yourself the most expensive college education,” Stockdale says. He estimates that the difference between living in D.C. and, say, Maryland or Virginia, where his son might have attended a public college for a reduced price, will have cost him more than $100,000 by the time his three children earn their degrees.
Instead of simply moaning about private college tuition costs, Stockdale’s trying to start a groundswell of his own: He wants college-bound District residents to receive in-state tuition at federally funded land-grant universities as well as other state schools across the country. It is an idea in step with the times. After all, legislators on Capitol Hill have for years denied D.C. statehood by arguing that the nation’s capital belongs to the entire country not just the citizens of the District of Columbia. Stockdale thinks that this is their moment to prove it.
Quality public schools act as magnets for parents eager to give their children the best education possible via their property taxes. More than potholes and even crime, schools drive people out of the District. It’s no mystery that when D.C. public schools spiraled into chaos in the ’80s, thousands of working- and middle-class families who lived here for generations finally packed up and bolted for places like Fort Washington and Woodbridge.
That’s why new Mayor Anthony Williams has targeted the D.C. public school system as a top priority of his administration. But, many District parents complain, those who invest their children’s future in D.C. schools for K-12 get socked with a whopping graduation gift: out-of-state or private college tuition payments totaling more than $100,000. Stockdale’s scheme would slash that cost.
Of course, the District does host the nation’s only urban land-grant university, the University of the District of Columbia (UDC). An amalgam of three separate institutions, UDC has never established a clear academic mandate, and the quality of the education has suffered for it. But even if ivy grew on its concrete walls, Stockdale says fairness dictates that D.C. students be given more opportunities. After all, even states with similarly tiny populations, like Vermont and Wyoming, offer their residents more than one option in higher education.
Stockdale argues that UDC should be a choice, not an ultimatum, for D.C. residents seeking affordable higher education. “I don’t want to get into castigating UDC,” says Stockdale. “UDC has always been bandied around as part of the racial politics of this city. That’s not what we’re talking about.”
If Stockdale had his way, cheaper tuition for D.C. students might even be a quicker subway ride than the UDC campus at Van Ness. Only four Metro stops past Foggy Bottom on the Orange Line, George Mason University charges $2,172 per semester for full-time Virginia residents. D.C. residents, or any out-of-staters for that matter, must pony up $6,252 for the same credit hours. And over on the Green Line, the University of Maryland, College Park, costs $2,349.50 for those from the Free State, $5,610.50 for D.C. carpetbaggers. “[T]hey have to spend at least $10,000 more to send their child to a Virginia college than if they moved a mile away,” says Stockdale.
College costs are only one small part of the District’s financial whirl of population drain, tax-base atrophy, and service cutbacks. Stockdale believes his proposal might slow down the centrifugal force. “What normally gets headlines is the drugs and crime,” says Stockdale. “But the financial aspect of college education is a killer….Many parents move to Maryland and Virginia to send their kids to public colleges so they’ll get in-state tuition.”
When Northwest parent Peggy Sheridan attended a financial aid workshop for Gonzaga College High School parents, the facilitator told parents and students to always include a state school among their college applications for financial reasons. “What do I do if I live in D.C.?” Sheridan inquired.
“Move,” the facilitator responded.
“That made me sad,” says Sheridan, a lifelong D.C. resident. “I spent a few weeks looking in Virginia.”
The District has a hard time improving higher educationor pretty much anything elseon its own, because it faces an imposing revenue dilemma. Federal encampment of the city means that more than 50 percent of D.C.’s land is tax-exempt. And many federal workersand those in the private sector attached to government worklive in the surrounding suburbs. When their cars cross the Key Bridge to head home, their all-important tax dollars follow.
For years, District officials have floated politically lifeless proposals such as a commuter or flat tax to even the playing field between D.C. and its property-tax-rich neighbors. Stockdale believes his idea is a much more viable solution. “This is a simple idea,” Stockdale says. “This is not a complicated tax proposal, or, like the flat tax, an incentive for every millionaire to establish residency here.”
And unlike other proposals to help the District, it’s not such a Hail Mary pass. Other jurisdictions already have similar programs. In Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota, and South Dakota, a reciprocal tuition agreement lets students pay their home-state tuition at public schools in neighboring states. “We feel it’s a win-win situation,” says Linda Kohl, associate vice chancellor for public affairs for Minnesota State Colleges and Universities. Each year, Kohl notes, thousands of students in these states cross the border to go to college. The University of Texas has a similar program for Mexican students who live on the El Paso border.
Proponents of the in-state tuition plan note that it would not only benefit those interested in snaring bargain-basement tuition for public Ivies like the University of Virginia, but also work to the advantage of students interested in choices such as Virginia Tech or public liberal arts schools like St. Mary’s College in Maryland.
Stockdale’s such a fan of the idea that he even chewed the commander-in-chief’s ear about it at an event at Sidwell Friends School. Then-Sidwell parent Bill Clinton asked fellow parents about front-burner issues for D.C. residents. Stockdale, whose two sons attended Sidwell after graduating from Deal Junior High, piped up about the issue of college tuition. Clinton seemed interested and handed the issue off to his point man on District affairs at the time, former Office of Management and Budget Director Franklin Raines.
Stockdale’s still waiting for a response.