The D.C. Council voted unanimously Tuesday to create a wide-ranging college scholarship program for city students amid questions about whether it could endanger a popular federal program.
The city's delegate to Congress has warned that if the city can fund its own tuition grants, Congress might stop handing out up to $10,000 a year to district residents to attend public universities outside city limits.
Supporters of the so-called D.C. Promise said before Tuesday's vote that it's meant to supplement, not replace, the federal program. But Democratic Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton said Congressional appropriators are only interested in seeing how much money the city commits to the grants.
The city program would cost more than $42 million over four years, according to the Office of the Chief Financial Officer. There are no funds budgeted for it, which means the council would have to cut from other city services if Mayor Vincent Gray does not fund the scholarships in his upcoming budget.
CFO Jeffrey DeWitt warned that if the federal program goes away, the city program could end up costing $55 million per year.
While the federal grants are available to all city residents, the local program would top out at $7,500 a year, and only students from lower-income families would be eligible for the maximum grants.
The bill's passage was a victory for its sponsor, Councilmember David Catania, an at-large independent who chairs the council's education committee and is considering a run for mayor. Catania has argued that the city, which has recorded sizable budget surpluses the past three years, can afford to invest in its student population and reduce their debt burden, which is the nation's highest.
The federal grants were created in 1999, and Norton, who sponsored the bill, said 20,000 students have received them, including 5,000 who are currently attending college. The program, known as the D.C. Tuition Assistance Grants, expands the affordable options for college-bound district residents beyond the University of the District of Columbia, the city's only public institution.
"I will fight to save DCTAG if it is threatened with the loss of all or any part of its funding,'' Norton said in a statement. "If D.C. residents lose DCTAG funding nor or in the future, I know that they will hold the council accountable to replace whatever funds are lost.''
The local bill was amended so that its funds can't be used for tuition at schools eligible for the federal grants. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said the city needed to do more to ensure that students, especially poor ones, can attend college. The D.C. Promise is modeled after similar programs in other cities, including Kalamazoo, Mich., and New Haven, Conn., although those programs receive private funds.
"DCTAG, as wonderful as it is, is not enough,'' Mendelson said. "This bill is very distinguishable. It's very different.''