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D.C. Council Approves Scholarship Program, Despite Potential Threat to Federal Grants

Despite warnings that a new District-funded scholarship program might cost D.C. students congressionally appropriated grant money, the D.C. Council unanimously approved the D.C. Promise Act on Tuesday.

The measure, proposed by Councilmember David Catania, an independent who is considering a run for mayor, creates a need-based scholarship program that could provide up to $7,500 per year to students who graduate from D.C. schools and plan to attend college or career training.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., sounded alarms as the proposal worked its way through the John A. Wilson building, warning that the fate of the D.C. Tuition Assistance Grant program, or TAG, would be thrown into question on Capitol Hill if appropriators concluded the city could help low-income students defray the costs of higher education without their help.

“If the Promise bill is passed, even though not yet funded, it puts DCTAG funding at risk, not only because of specific concerns raised about the DC Promise bill, but also because of federal rules that significantly limit local funds for federally funded programs,” Norton said in a statement after meeting privately with Catania and D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson to raise her concerns.

Supporters tried to assuage her concerns with a package of amendments, adopted Tuesday, that lowered the bottom line, cutting maximum aid per student from $60,000 to $30,000, effectively cutting down the cost of a program initially estimated to cost the District as much as $50 million per year.

They also emphasized that Promise would be fundamentally different in scope and goals than TAG, which helps students in almost any income bracket offset the higher cost of out-of-state tuition when applying to schools around the country.

Promise is designed to “supplement, not supplant TAG,” Catania told CQ Roll Call, pointing out that the funds would become available to students only after they exhaust all other possible grant assistance, including federal Pell grants.

Promise money could be used to cover books, housing, dining and other college expenses, Catania said, and can be applied to career training, private or public colleges, and two-year or four-year programs. TAG provides up to $10,000 a year to defray the cost of public out-of-state schools and up to $2,500 a year toward education at a private university in D.C. or a historically black college.

All parties seem to agree the TAG subsidy is not enough to defray college costs, but Norton fears those funds are already at risk. Her concern is based on language in the House Financial Services Subcommittee report on fiscal 2014 appropriations that invited the city to fund more of the program, saying that “the District of Columbia can contribute local funds to this program if there is demand for the program.”

Mendelson acknowledged those fears, characterizing the vote as a matter of “risk tolerance.” It passed unanimously on first reading.

In a statement issued after the vote, Norton said she had informed the council of the risks D.C. Promise posed to TAG, and again sounded a note of alarm that congressional funds may fall by the wayside if local funds are available.

“While securing DCTAG funding may become more difficult, I certainly will not give up,” Norton said in her statement. “I will do what I always do. I will fight to save DCTAG if it is threatened with the loss of all or any part of its funding. If D.C. residents lose DCTAG funding for now or in the future, I know that they will hold the Council accountable to replace whatever funds are lost.”

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