The University of the District of Columbia (UDC) has a plan to undo its declining enrollment and prepare students for high-demand jobs while keeping the school affordable for residents — and this time, school officials say, they are sticking to it.
With an array of course and degree offerings, and below-average tuition rates, one may think it would be the automatic school of choice in the city that thousands move to each year in search of education and job opportunities. But for years, the school has struggled to retain students and graduate them.
Now, cleared of restrictions imposed by the U.S. Department of Education for mismanagement of federal student aid, and a year after the city auditor gave mixed reviews of it meeting its benchmark goals, the university has taken steps to improve course offerings, retain faculty and student and attract new ones.
“Growing up, everyone who knew me thought I would have gone to a big-name school, but when I said I was going to UDC, I got mixed reactions,” said Deanna Marie Wilson, 19, a sophomore at the university and recipient of a DC-UP scholarship and housing stipend. “People used to call it ‘the university for dumb children.’ People really turn their nose up to the school.”
Wilson said she has found a great support system in the school’s writing and career centers, enjoys the diverse student body and hopes others will consider the university as an option.
To prospective students, she says: “Don’t count it out until you visit. Form your own opinion.”
Today, many students at the school are the first in their families to go to college who face financial obstacles or see it as an affordable alternative to continue their education.
University President Ronald Mason reset a 2020 deadline for a plan to regenerate the school to 2022 in hopes of establishing the institution as a “public university model of urban student success.”
Mason said UDC “completes the mayor’s pathways to the middle class.”
“It’s difficult to make it to the middle class without a bachelor’s degree,” he said. “We are the last piece of the puzzle.”
In the city, gaps continue to trend in the city’s education attainment and household incomes. The average household income in D.C. stands at about $75,000, but for White families it jumps to about $127,000 and dips to $37,000 for Black households. A person with a college degree earns an average of $35,000 more than a person with a high school diploma in the city, and while almost all White residents hold a degree, only about 26 percent of Black residents have a college education.
Similar gaps exist within the city’s public schools system.
The future of many D.C. Public School (DCPS) students seems uncertain as the scandal-plagued schools system struggles to close achievement gaps for its students from minority and underserved backgrounds and as cuts to key programs that send District students to college remain in the balance.
“I’ve watched people [on social media] call my daughter an idiot because of the school she goes to,” said Alice Thorton, 54, mother of a 17-year-old Ballou Senior High School student. Someone said they should knock the school down and just build a mall.”
Recently, DCPS has been enveloped in scandal, including inflated high school graduation rates currently the subject of a federal investigation, vast enrollment fraud at one of the city’s top-performing high schools and the dismissal of the city’s top two school officials for circumventing school-enrollment policies. Additionally, data released by the schools system shows this year’s graduation rate is set to decline, with only 42 percent of the city’s seniors on track to graduate.
“She feels like her college choices will dwindle after this investigation,” Thorton said of her daughter, who is at the top of her junior class and involved in several extracurricular activities.
Last month, President Donald Trump proposed to eliminate the funding for the D.C. Tuition Assistance Grant (DCTAG) program, jeopardizing the future of the 4,000 students who currently receive DCTAG funding — a program that typically serves students comes from families that earning less than $30,000.
But officials at the UDC are making the case that they are a viable option for students in the District to complete their education, as 72 percent of the university’s students are D.C. residents with a vast majority of them graduating from DCPS.
“We’re at the stage now where we take [students] as we find and them and do the best we can to be as successful as they can be in life,” Mason said. “They are our students once they walk in our doors, and we have three doors to walk in.”
Currently, the university offers three routes of entry for students — its professional certificates and job training path, its community college that offers remediation courses and the opportunity to earn and associate degree and through selective admissions to pursue bachelors or graduate degrees — and each one can lead into the next.
Mason said the he would like to see a pipeline partnership with DCPS in the future.
The institution stands as the least expensive university in the DMV area, ranks in the top 100 universities for upward mobility when comparing the incomes of their students and parents, and its law school ranks right behind Yale as the nation’s sixth-best clinical law school.
“In the work that we have done in the last two years to clean things up and straighten things out, people who have wanted to embrace their university are feeling more comfortable in doing so,” Mason said. “We are going from an institution that where people thought we were a community college to one that is being and institution of first choice for many public-school students.”
In the past year, the institution has settled its faculty union contract for the first time, introduced its first doctorate program for engineering and computer science and attracted more than 150 of the District’s top-performing high school students through its new DC-UP program. It has seen a 51 percent increase in full-time, first-time-in-college students between and a 10 percent increase in retention since last year.
This year, UDC is requesting what they call a “modest” increase in support from the city and has launched a campaign #EqualFundingForUDC.
The District spends about 1.1 percent of its budget on higher education, compared to the national average of 5.8 percent.
The university is requesting an increase of its base operating subsidy from $78 million to $125 million over four years, as well as $725 million over 10 years in capital needs, still placing subsidies to the university at less than 2 percent of the total city budget. It seeks to improve academic programming, modernize its distressed infrastructure, develop student housing and offer more incentives to retain faculty members.