Credit: (Illustration by Devon Bowman)

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Howard University has a lot to brag about. The school on the hilltop enjoys a reputation for having some of the brightest undergraduates in the country; it’s the top historically black national university on U.S. News & World Report’s all-important college rankings, and it’s a must-visit for investment-bank recruiters. Yet despite a healthy 63 percent five-year graduation rate—around 20 points higher than the average for historically black schools—it graduates an abysmal 12 percent of its D.C.-native students over the same time period.

Most of those students—100 of them—use the D.C. Tuition Assistance Grant program (TAG) to help pay for school. The program enjoyed a banner year in 2006, its seventh year of existence, doling out more than $30 million in college aid to more than 5,000 applicants, helping scores of students who might not have been able to consider higher ed otherwise. Throughout the city, high schools sent their graduates to college in unprecedented numbers, and the postsecondary enrollment rate has crept in line with the national average of 60 percent. College-bound District students, it appears, are finally catching up to their peers.

But what happens to those students once they get to college is another story. According to the District’s State Education Office (SEO), which administers TAG and other financial-aid programs, most public-school graduates who go on to college end up at schools with graduation rates well below the national average.

The 10 most popular college destinations for TAG recipients (not counting two-year community colleges) have an average four-year graduation rate of 27.6 percent, half of the national average of 56 percent. And when TAG students are admitted to selective universities with higher graduation standards, they fare little better, as Howard’s record shows. “You have to be pretty smart to get into Howard in the first place,” says state education officer Deborah Gist. “So why are they not graduating?”

The question implicitly asks what D.C. schools are and aren’t doing to ensure that their graduates finish college. To explicitly answer it, last October, the SEO completed a study on District students’ college experiences. With the help of an outside consulting company, the agency identified students who were 9th-­graders in the 2000–2001 school year and tracked each one through high school and into college.

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The study found a number of factors preventing D.C. students from succeeding in college: high schools that fail to prepare their graduates for college-level work, a relatively new going-to-college culture that drives students primarily to historically black colleges and universities (which, as a group, have long lagged behind national graduation rate averages), a lack of support services at those universities, and, of course, finances. “We have students who have been in [the] TAG program for what would seem to be a long period of time, because they have to work and help support their families,” says John Parham, the SEO’s director of higher-education financial services. “They’d like to be a full-time student but they can’t.”

Established in 1999, the TAG program intends to knock down this financial barrier to college. Any District resident attending college for the first time is eligible to receive up to $10,000 per academic year to offset tuition costs at an out-of-state public university or $2,500 per academic year toward a private university in D.C. or any HBCU nationwide. Before D.C. students can get their diplomas, they’re required to fill out TAG applications.

Since TAG receives 100 percent of its funding—$33.2 million this past fiscal year—from the federal government, its benefactors have a keen interest in how the money is used. Parham says that if TAG recipients continue to leave college before graduating, funding could suffer. “Long term, if the retention and graduation rates stay low, someone could say it’s not money well-spent, which could be a legitimate argument,” he says.

The TAG program exists largely due to the efforts of Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s congressional delegate, and she doesn’t see the program to be in any immediate danger. The TAG appropriations received almost unanimous support on the Hill, she says, and President George W. Bush has twice authorized increases in TAG funds.

Norton says that because the SEO study took only two graduating classes into account, there isn’t cause for worry. “I found the study very confusing for that reason,” she says. “Our graduation rate after only two classes does not put us outside of national norms.”

Parham and Gist are quick to point out that they don’t intend to dissuade students from attending low-performing universities. They just want to identify which schools need the most help serving TAG students. Most states, however, only have to work with their own university systems. D.C. has to deal with more than 300 different colleges across the country.

While the SEO decides the best approach, it has begun to improve matters in small ways. The agency inserted a section on college retention in its DC OneApp manual this year, a guide for high schoolers applying for TAG and other financial aid. The chart serves “to allow students to make informed choices about the schools they plan to attend.”

What students see on the chart isn’t pretty. Only seven of the 50 most popular college destinations for TAG recipients graduate more than half of their students within four years. Of the 10 colleges with the most TAG recipients, just one, Penn State, has a four-year graduation rate of over 50 percent.

The University of the District of Columbia also makes the list. Though its status as the only “in-state” public university in Washington disqualifies it from participating in the TAG program, UDC receives the bulk of D.C. high school graduates each year. But according to the SEO, it graduates only 11 percent of its students within five years.

As part of an ongoing effort to raise its graduation rates, UDC now requires all freshmen seeking baccalaureate degrees to take a for-credit orientation class that teaches students study skills and time-management techniques. But there still appear to be kinks that need to be worked out. Monique Snow, a 2006 Cardozo graduate now attending UDC, signed up for the class her first semester but dropped it after a few weeks when her professor failed to show up for any of the classes. “It’s basically a waste of time,” she says. “You should learn to do your note-taking in high school.”

Charles Antoine Conway, an Eastern High graduate now at Georgetown (five-year graduation rate: 92 percent), says his teachers never even pushed him toward college. Left to his own devices, his first college list consisted of institutions with graduation rates in the teens. It wasn’t until Conway happened to take a class taught by an American University law student—who quickly realized Conway was underestimating his own academic abilities—that he even considered the possibility of going anywhere else. “It’s an emphasis on those schools that aren’t really selective,” he says of the college counseling he received at Eastern. “I think it shows low expectations in students.”

“It would be nice to think that any student in D.C. can go to any college in the country, but they can’t,” says Parham. “So universities that have less strict admissions standards, you’re going to have more students going there.”

And because those students may not be academically prepared for college, they tend to take remedial courses their first year just to catch up. “We bump into that a lot,” says Parham. “Freshman year isn’t freshman year anymore; it’s another year of high school. And that lengthens the time frame for graduation.”

It also means, says Gist, that students are paying for “coursework they should have had before they got there.”

The SEO study turned up a few schools where the graduation rate for D.C. students is actually higher than the institution’s average—the kind of places to which Gist hopes to funnel more students. One such school is all-female Trinity University in Brookland. District residents make up more than one-fifth of the undergraduate student population, and the university has reinvented itself from a former cousin of the Seven Sisters to an institution dedicated to educating D.C.’s young women.

In addition to a basic freshman orientation, the university offers a series of academic and personal success workshops that cover everything from how to read a syllabus to managing money during the holiday season. The students identified as needing the most academic assistance are placed in a program called Future Focus. A dedicated Trinity staffer provides study hall and tutoring.

Trinity has also just approved a new curriculum that focuses on essential skills such as writing, quantitative analysis, verbal communication, and reading comprehension. “If you don’t have that core set of skills, it’s going to be a challenge to master biology,” explains Trinity spokesperson Ann Pauley.

The SEO plans to make the retention section of its OneApp manual even more robust next year, including specific information on retention services that each school offers. Then the agency will begin to make requests of the universities to ensure their graduation rates—at least for D.C. students—improve. “If it comes to the point where after we’ve done that and the university’s not responsive,” says Parham, “then we may have to look at it and say, ‘Maybe you shouldn’t be eligible for [TAG] money.’ ”

Additional reporting by Jonathan York

Most Popular Colleges for D.C. High-School Graduates
Subjects of 2006 College Retention StudyCOLLEGE FIVE-YEAR GRADUATION RATE
 All StudentsD.C. Students
UDC11%9%
North Carolina A&T State University36%24%
Trinity University (D.C.)44%51%
Virginia State University35%44%
University of Maryland Eastern Shore38%39%
Temple University (Pa.)52%64%
Virginia Commonwealth University37%52%
Delaware State University32%27%
Howard University (D.C.)63%12%
Bowie State University (Md.)30%15%
(Source: D.C. State Education Office)