Students, city leaders back D.C. tuition program slashed in Trump’s proposed budget

Media Credit: Jack Fonseca | Hatchet Photographer

Adel Hassen, a sophomore majoring in business administration who receives money from the grant, said the proposal to defund the program reflects how little education is valued by the Trump administration.

Updated: March 2, 2018 at 6:15 p.m.

The Trump administration is proposing to eliminate a District-wide federal tuition aid program in its budget blueprint for next fiscal year – sparking an effort by city leaders to save it.

The D.C. Tuition Assistance Grant program, which provides financial relief to students from D.C. studying at universities in the District and around the country, would be phased out if Congress passes President Donald Trump’s proposed budget for the 2019 fiscal year.

Students receiving the grant said the program is essential for encouraging D.C. high school students of all backgrounds to continue their education and revoking it would dissuade D.C. students from pursuing a college degree. Those students said the program is vital to pay their cost of attendance because, in a city without major public universities, the grant is their version of an in-state tuition discount.

The program provides up to $10,000 in grants to individual students from D.C. attending universities outside of the District and $2,500 for students attending D.C. institutions.

“It is unfathomable that any leader working to build a safer, stronger and more competitive country would choose to cut a program like this rather than expanding it.”

Laurie Koehler, the vice provost for enrollment management and retention, said it is too early in the federal budget process to know the grant program’s future, but the University is “monitoring” the budget and working on “alternative aid awards” for students assisted by the grant this year who may not receive it next year.

Koehler said “nearly all” undergraduate students at GW who were D.C. residents in high school received funding from the program this academic year. There are 352 undergraduates from D.C. at GW this year, according to the Office of Institutional Research and Planning.

It remains unclear whether the program will be eliminated because Congress must first approve Trump’s proposals. The Trump administration proposed a host of spending cuts last year that Congress did not include in its final budget, according to a report in The Atlantic.

“In the past 15 years as the program has expanded, the D.C. TAG program has opened doors to D.C. residents who may not have otherwise been able to afford to attend the college of their choice for financial reasons,” Koehler said in an email.

Officials have sought to recruit students from the District to GW in recent years through full-ride scholarships and partnerships with nonprofit organizations.

D.C. TAG has funded 26,000 students from all eight wards since its inception in 1999, and it now helps to fund D.C. students at more than 300 colleges and universities across the U.S., according to an emailed statement from D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser last week.

The program had a $40 million budget last fiscal year, according to The Washington Post. Bowser condemned the proposal to defund the program saying it would limit opportunities for promising students from the District.

“It is unfathomable that any leader working to build a safer, stronger and more competitive country would choose to cut a program like this rather than expanding it,” she said in the release.

The Bowser administration launched a #SaveDCTAG petition earlier this month after Trump’s budget blueprint was released, calling on Congress to fully fund the program next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.

Zach Leibell, the associate press secretary for Bowser, said Friday that the petition has attracted more than 10,000 signatures so far.

Students who receive funding from the program said they were in disbelief when they initially found out the grant could be eliminated because it’s a crucial source of financial aid.

Nakfana Gidey, a sophomore majoring in international affairs, said she thought it was a joke when she first heard the program might be slashed because it has been a “given” for her whole life.

“I’m still kind of in denial,” Gidey said. “Congress is making all the decisions for us, but we’re kind of in this grey area where our rights aren’t really being respected especially when it comes to college.”

Without the grant, she said she isn’t sure how she will pay for school, and that this decision will deter other students – especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds – from pursuing higher education.

“D.C. TAG, it’s just something that barely levels out the playing field,” she said. “How are we going to get to school if we can’t pay for it?”

The proposed cut comes as Congress also phases out the Perkins Loans program, a major source of federal aid for students.

Adel Hassen, a sophomore majoring in business administration who receives money from the grant, said the administration’s proposal to defund a program that sends mostly underprivileged students to college reflects how little education is valued by the Trump administration.

“It really comes as a shock to me that this country would defund in education when we are clearly falling behind other countries,” Hassen said.

Senators have publicly stated the program didn’t “live up to expectations” because the college graduation rate within six years among D.C. TAG students was 51 percent – nine percent below the national average, the Washington Post reported. But the six-year graduation rate for grant recipients has increased from 43.3 percent in 2004, according to government data.

Statistics from the D.C. Office of the State Superintendent show that students who receive funding from the grant are more likely to graduate within six years than college students from the District who aren’t supported by the program.

“You’re comparing D.C. kids to the rest of the country when you should be comparing them to the rest of the D.C. public school kids,” Hassen said.

“It just highlights how complicated the relationship is between the District of Columbia and the federal government.”

Sophia Gutierrez, a sophomore psychology major, said the program took care of all textbook expenses for her this academic year and that if the program is defunded, students who can’t afford higher education now face another limitation.

“It’s one less tool that they will have accessible to them to be able to allow them to succeed,” she said.

Gutierrez said she could probably take on a job to cover textbook expenses if the program is defunded, but many of her friends might not be able to return to school.

Robert Kelchen, a financial aid expert and assistant professor at Seton Hall University, said a tuition program is especially important for lower income students who would otherwise struggle to afford a college education. But he said given the nature of the budget process, it’s unlikely Congress will defund it.

“It just highlights how complicated the relationship is between the District of Columbia and the federal government,” he said.

Lizzie Stricklin contributed to reporting.

This post was updated to reflect the following correction:
The Hatchet reported that Zach Leibell is a press secretary for Bowser. He is the associate press secretary. We regret this error. The headline for this article was changed for clarity.

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