Does Catania's scholarship plan promise enough?

Councilmember David Catania has proposed a tuition-assistance program that would help lower-income DC students pay for college. So-called "Promise" scholarship programs have been tried elsewhere, with mixed success.

Photo by stevendepolo on Flickr.

Catania's program, unveiled a month ago, would provide scholarships of up to $20,000 a year to students who both graduate from a DCPS or charter school and have spent at least 4 years in the system. Reaction to the plan at a public hearing yesterday was generally favorable, although some officials questioned how the District would pay for it. Yesterday Catania said it would cost at most $50 million a year, but other estimates have gone as high as $75 million.

Dubbed the "DC Promise," Catania's proposal bears some similarities to the "Kalamazoo Promise," launched in Michigan in 2005 by a group of anonymous private donors. It's inspired programs, or at least discussions of programs, in perhaps 25 other places around the country.

Catania proposes to provide tuition subsidies to families earning up to $250,000, although those with higher incomes and fewer years in the school system would get less than others. The maximum of $100,000, spread over 5 years, would go to those whose kids have been in DC public schools since 6th grade and who earn below 200% of the federal poverty threshold. The minimum award would be $3,000 a year.

$250,000 upper limit

Catania clearly sees the program as a way to level the playing field for those at the bottom end of the income scale. Given that objective, some would say that families earning a quarter of a million dollars a year shouldn't qualify for assistance at all. On the other hand, it could provide an incentive for middle class families to stay in DC and keep their kids in public schools.

But others say that in DC, $250,000 doesn't go all that far. At yesterday's hearing, some called for the program to be expanded to all District students. And on the Urban Mom listserv, one parent complained that she'd made financial sacrifices to send her kid to private school because of the poor quality of her local public school.

"And now you're saying that since my city failed me I'm going to be shut out of this program?" she wrote about DC Promise. "Since my city failed me once it's failing me twice?"

Another program, the DC Tuition Assistance Grants (DC TAG), provides every DC family with $10,000 a year towards tuition at an out-of-state college, regardless of income or even whether a student is in public or private school. DC Promise would be in addition to that program, not instead of it.

Results in Kalamazoo

The Kalamazoo Promise is different from Catania's proposal in purpose and scope. It's open to any student in Kalamazoo's schools regardless of income, with a sliding scale depending on the number of years a student has been in the system. A student who starts in kindergarten gets her entire tuition paid for at any public, in-state school, while a kid who enters in 9th grade gets 65% covered. Rather than trying to reduce inequality, the private donors who established the program were trying to shore up an economy that was hemorrhaging jobs.

Kalamazoo is obviously a lot smaller than DC, with a population of 74,000 and a total of a little over 500 graduating seniors a year. But it has its problems. A third of the population is below the poverty level, and one in 12 are homeless. The teenage pregnancy rate is among the highest in Michigan.

The results of the Kalamazoo program have been uneven. It's apparently stopped white flight to the suburbs and kept the demographic mix in the schools stable. It's also attracted students to the public schools, where enrollment has increased by 24%. And 90% of the kids who graduate from high school now go to college.

On the other hand, it hasn't done anything to close the achievement gap. A third of students still drop out of high school before graduation. For African-American males, the rate is 44%, although black girls are doing better. And even the students who graduate from high school and start college often don't make it through to graduation: as of a year ago, 2,500 students in 7 graduating classes had gotten scholarships, but fewer than 500 of them had gotten college degrees.

One problem may be that they're not academically prepared for college, although the schools have gotten better in response to the Promise program. But another problem is that the program, like the proposal for DC, doesn't cover room and board—or the income that students forgo when they choose to go to college.

The average out-of-state tuition at a public university this year is just over $20,000 a year, so it's possible that Catania's proposal would cover almost all of that (although tuition at public universities is rising faster than that at private ones). But the average room and board is close to $10,000. For many low-income families, that will be prohibitive.

On the other hand, average tuition at a two-year college is only a little over $3,000, and DC Promise funds could be used at any accredited community college or certificate program.

As the Kalamazoo experiment illustrates, free or almost-free college tuition isn't a panacea for the ills that plague public schools. No doubt for at least some low-income students DC Promise would make the difference between college and no college. But whether the $50 million a year would be better spent on this program or other education initiatives isn't clear. Some in Kalamazoo are thinking that the real focus should be on early childhood education.

One possibility would be to focus the DC program more narrowly, either by limiting it to families with lower incomes and/or to students who achieve a certain minimum GPA or score on college-entrance exams.

There's something appealing about the simplicity and sweep of a universal, or near-universal, tuition assistance program. But unless a group of mysterious deep-pocketed philanthropists suddenly appears in DC, it would be easier to foot the bill if the program is trimmed. And for those making, say, $255,000 a year, a program limited to the truly poor might be easier to embrace.

Natalie Wexler blogs at DC Eduphile and is a contributor to the Washington Post. She serves on the boards of DC Scholars Public Charter School and The Writing Revolution and chairs the DC Regional Leadership Council of the Urban Teacher Center. She has also been a volunteer tutor in reading and writing in DC Public Schools. 


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Sounds like the programs have different ends. The Kalamazoo program was to keep families in Kalamazoo. DC doesn't (for all it's talk) have trouble keeping people in DC. This would end up largely being a handout to high income families who are not having trouble making ends meet on 250k for any reason other than poor choices. The median household income in the district is only $62k after all so most people are getting by on much much less.

by BTA on Nov 15, 2013 11:19 am • linkreport

@BTA " This would end up largely being a handout to high income families who are not having trouble making ends meet on 250k for any reason other than poor choices."

I am not certain that poor choices are the only reason high income folks have trouble paying for college considering the cost of college. There is a failed logic that poor choices of the parent nullifies the help the city will give since a lot of those with lower incomes or no income made poor choices to end up in the situation they are in. Also, the program doesn't to my knowledge account for family size. Is that a poor choice? If so, again, why are the children punished?

by leeindc on Nov 15, 2013 11:43 am • linkreport

Private schools are very organized and loaded with politically connected people who will go absolutely bananas fighting to get their "share" of cash.

I like the plan for the reasons mentioned above, but if this starts to look like it might happen, private school parents are gonna start lobbying and it will be really hard for Council Members to fight them off.

I also wonder what Council Members Jack Evans position will be since he doesn't even send his kids to DCPS.

by turtleshell on Nov 15, 2013 12:01 pm • linkreport

Conventional wisdom for middle-class DC parents seems to be that while a large fraction of families can find an elementary school solution from the mix of high-performing out-of-boundary DCPS, charters, and improving in-boundary DCPS schools, the big question is what to do about middle school. The prospect of $10k/year college grant could be a very big deal to, say, a dual GS-11 family, or a GS-14 with one stay-at-home parent, or such, and a strong incentive to try to stay in DC.

Keeping middle class residents in the city and increasing the number of middle class students in the schools could, as noted, raise the metrics of school performance without doing anything about the achievement gap. I think there could be some interesting analysis of the financial impacts of this--if better school metrics lead to higher property values and thus to higher property tax revenues, for example. Or, by keeping parents in DC through the high school year and college years, DC is then more likely to 'capture' said parents as empty nesters, keeping more of their spending and taxes in the city.

There is no scalable, demonstrated solution to poverty-based scholastic underperformance. Even expensive, heroic efforts like the Harlem Childrens Zone still don't come anywhere close to matching the results of ordinary suburban middle class schools. The 'obvious' solution is to solve poverty, but that, too, is a problem to which there are no known scalable solutions, and DC alone can't solve what is inherently a regional problem.

But it is known that at-risk kids to better when they are in predominantly middle-class schools, however DC right now doesn't have enough middle-class students to make every school predominantly middle-class. But inching towards that goal is laudable.

by thm on Nov 15, 2013 12:05 pm • linkreport

Two other short comments that I don't want buried at the bottom of my earlier screed:

1. @BTA--since it's generally not considered acceptable in progressive policy discussions to consider the plight of the poor to be a consequence of any "poor decisions" they might have made, I don't think its wise to start doing that with the middle-class. In the end, the beneficiaries of this program would be the children themselves, and whether they're privileged or not, there's no way they can be expected to be responsible for the choices their parents have made.

2. The award amounts clearly need to be smaller for higher income families, but the current proposal is way too coarse. To lose $5000/year by going from 400% to 401% of the poverty level is actually a perverse incentive to temporarily lower one's income if one is just a little bit above a threshold. Programs like this should be structured so that you never end with up less total (income+grant) when you income goes up.

by thm on Nov 15, 2013 12:30 pm • linkreport

As a recipient of the DCTAG program, I will agree that at the end of the day it’s all about the children and giving them a chance to succeed. My mom actually did make bad decisions that affected our ability to afford college. However, thanks to the city's tuition assistance programs, I was able to get through college and my salary now exceeds the cost paid for 5 years of college tuition.
I am now responsible for putting my sisters through college and the cost of education is stunning. While my salary is above the median for the area, that is an astronomical expense, and any help would not only be welcomed but needed. Needed not because I mismanage my finances, but because the cost of higher education is high and it’s not completely a reimbursable expense. In the end we all win; I both work and own a home in DC, so DC will get a return on its investment in tax revenues. I’m no longer on any public assistance (besides FHA), out of public housing, and no longer a burden to the city. Having some form of assistance for high income residents would be incentive when the time comes to raise my own kids in the city.

by VDC on Nov 15, 2013 1:18 pm • linkreport

@leeindc- Catania's site refers to a Federal poverty Limit and a Federal Poverty Level, which appear to be the Federal Poverty Guidelines? I'm not sure which. In any case the Federal Poverty numbers appear to be adjusted by household/family size, so more kids meas a higher base number.

Does this mean a single mom with 2 kids would have a lower base rate than a married mom with 2 kinds since the single mom would only have 3 people in the home vs. 4 for the married mom?

Also is it a bonus to divorced families where the father has a big income which is not counted because he lives in another home? would he count as part of the household/family?

by turtleshell on Nov 15, 2013 4:34 pm • linkreport

@turtle shell

thanks for the extra info

by leeindc on Nov 18, 2013 2:00 pm • linkreport

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