‘A moonshot goal’ for more DC students to earn college degrees

Last week, Washington, DC, announced an ambitious plan to raise college completion rates among DC students to 80% by 2050, The Washington Post reports. DC College Access Program (DC-CAP), a nonprofit organization that encourages and ensures students in the District to enroll and graduate from college, will spearhead the program, according to a press release. DC-CAP has gathered a coalition of leaders from the education, business, philanthropy, government, and nonprofit sectors who are committing to the initiative. Several college presidents from the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area—including Georgetown University President John J. DeGioia—have also pledged their support.

“It’s a moonshot goal,” says Eric Waldo, DC-CAP president and chief executive. “At a time where the headwinds have led to 30 years of education losses, we’re saying we want to double down, and that’s the only way this city is going to thrive.”

Importance of college preparedness

DC has a college completion problem, officials say. After years of decline, more DC students graduated from high school in the 2021-22 school year and enrolled in college in 2022 than the previous year. However, just 18 out of 100 students who start the ninth grade together complete a postsecondary degree after six years of graduating high school, according to the DC Policy Center.

Lack of college preparation is a major barrier to postsecondary academic success. Some DC students come to college “many grade levels behind,” with some reading below high school level, says Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University, where many DC students attend college. Those academic struggles can impact students’ academic and career success. Students who are also chronically absent from their high school classes frequently skip college classes, too, says McGuire. In the 2022-23 school year, about 63% of high school seniors missed at least 18 days of school. “Most of our students who flunk out in the first year don’t attend class,” McGuire explains.

Students’ college preparedness is often linked to their socioeconomic status, leaving many students who lack access to college counseling, a supportive home network, and exposure to rigorous coursework to struggle in core subject areas.

Setting a high bar

To reduce financial barriers to a college education, the District plans to expand college scholarships for low-income students. Currently DC-CAP provides scholarships of $4,000 each year (up to $20,000 over five years) for tuition, room and board, fees, and other expenses. The D.C. Tuition Assistance Grant awards up to $10,000 each year toward the difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition at public colleges and universities across the U.S. and up to $2,500 to students attending four-year private Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) nationwide or private non-profit colleges in the Washington, DC, region.

Experts say that dual enrollment programs, which allow high school students to earn early college credit, will be crucial. The city is also planning to expand programs that provide academic guidance to help students as they transition to middle school, high school, and college. Ninth Grade Academies help incoming ninth graders acclimate to high school, and five out of nine campuses with the academies have had graduation rates above the city’s 76%, according to the Post. The city will start a similar program at 11 middle schools, the Post reports. DCPS Persists supports college-going DC students by offering academic and career support, financial aid, emergency funding, and networking connections.

Georgetown’s pre-college programs and Community Scholars Program

Georgetown University’s Center for Multicultural Equity and Access (CMEA) offers several pre-college academic programs designed to provide a more equitable pathway to a college education for students in DC public schools. “Our DC area has long struggled with both high school completion and college completion, and so I am thrilled to see the investment in the moonshot goal along with the public and private sector partners’ collaboration,” Charlene Brown-McKenzie (C’95, G’23, Parent’27), CMEA director, tells The FEED “CMEA, through its notable Pre-College programs and Community Scholars Program, has contributed successfully to increasing not only access to post-secondary education but also retention and completion.”

This engagement begins as early as middle school, building a college-going culture and pathways to strengthen students’ academic profile, as well as their personal, familial, and community motivation to persist. Through a multi-year model of both curricular and co-curricular programming, Georgetown can help ensure students’ well-being and belonging at their chosen institutions. (Learn more by reading this week’s FEED story on Georgetown programs preparing DC students for college success.)  

These are “interventions that guide and prepare students for the cultural norms, skills, and behaviors of postsecondary education,” says Brown-McKenzie. “CMEA’s broader work at Georgetown identifies student success strategies and incorporates them into support systems that prioritize wellness on the path to college completion,” she adds.

The Community Scholars Program, initially established to reduce opportunity and attainment gaps for DC students, provides students from diverse backgrounds, including low-income, first-generation college students, with academic advising, counseling, mentoring, workshops, and seminars that ensure students have the support they need to succeed throughout their time at Georgetown.

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