This vote was on an amendment by Tom Coburn, R-Okla., that would require the government of Washington, D.C. to offer the same tuition assistance for those who attend a private university as for those who attend a public university. The amendment was offered to a bill that would extend the tuition assistance program for five years.
Currently the federal government funds a program that allows the Washington, D.C. government to offer an up to $10,000 annual tuition subsidy over five years to certain residents of the city, if they attend a public university in the area. If they attend a public university outside of the area, the D.C. government will pay the difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition. If they choose to attend a private university in the area, the city will provide up to a $2,500 annual tuition subsidy over five years.
Coburn said his amendment would require the D.C. government to equalize its tuition assistance, which he implies is discriminatory against private colleges.
“We don’t discriminate between private and public. It doesn’t change where the restrictions are already. It doesn’t say every private university in America can have it. What it says is, if we are going to hold this apple out in front of you and say here is your education, we are going to give you a fair shot whether you want to go to a private school or a public school that is on the list. We are going to treat you the same, and we are going to hope that no matter which one you attend that you finish that education and come back and become a productive citizen contributing to DC,” Coburn said.
The tuition assistance law was designed to level the playing field between those who graduate from high schools inside Washington, which has just one public university, and those from states with multiple public universities that offer lower tuition for their residents. It is also intended to discourage families who live in the District from moving to surrounding states to quality for their in-state tuition rates. According to 2005 data provided by the Census Bureau, Washington, D.C., where residents are overwhelmingly black, has the third highest poverty rate in the country with more than 19 percent of its residents living below the federal poverty line.
George Voinovich, R-Ohio, said Coburn’s amendment would cause the cost of the program to skyrocket and as a result the government would have to reduce the number of students it can help through this program.
“So it is a matter of money and dividing it. My guess is that would result in fewer students attending college because the pool of available money would shrink,” Voinovich said. “This program is one of the most successful programs in the United States of America to reduce dropout rates and increase the attendance of youngsters to get a college education.” Voinovich added that since the program was created in 2000, college attendance has doubled for students who graduate from high schools inside Washington.
By a vote of 38-59, the Senate rejected Coburn’s amendment. Every Democrat present voted against the amendment. Of Republicans present, 38 voted for the amendment, and 10 voted against it. The end result is, the measure went forward without language that would have required the D.C. government to offer the same tuition subsidy for qualified residents who wish to attend a public university as those who wish to attend a private university.