Former Post publisher helps 'Dreamers' get to college

Donald Graham, here in Sun Valley, Idaho, has worked to create scholarships for students.
Donald Graham, here in Sun Valley, Idaho, has worked to create scholarships for students. (NATI HARNIK / Associated Press)
Posted: February 27, 2014

WASHINGTON - Long before he was the publisher and a principal owner of the Washington Post, Donald Graham was a beat cop in a low-income precinct.

"I rode around [Washington] and dealt with a lot of people who were troubled," he recalled last week. And he asked himself: "What could help?"

His conclusion: "College graduation is still the thing that creates the greatest likelihood of mobility for people with no assets."

Over the years, Graham, 68, who left the Post when it was sold in October, used his wealth and influence to create scholarships for Washington students.

And he learned, he said, that some are denied a higher education simply because they are ineligible for federal student loans.

These are the young immigrants who grew up in America without legal status and call themselves Dreamers. In most cases, their parents brought them, undocumented, to America.

"The situation seems uniquely cruel," Graham said. "Money that makes college accessible . . . is not available to them."

TheDream.US, a national project that Graham and two cofounders launched Feb. 4, takes aim at that roadblock.

Their initiative comes at a time when national efforts to reform immigration laws have stalled.

The program founders say reform may yet address the issue, but they are "not content to wait as the futures of these young Americans hang in the balance."

With $25 million raised from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, the inter-American Development Bank, and other parties, TheDream.US hopes to enable 2,000 young immigrants in the coming decade to graduate with "career-ready" degrees in such fields as nursing, accounting, and computer programming.

The idea is the brainchild of Graham, Democratic National Party fund-raiser Henry R. Munoz III, and former Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez, a Republican. Brainstorming began last summer.

The project is staffed by Candy Marshall, formerly of the Gates Foundation, and Maria Gabriela "Gaby" Pacheco, a Dreamer and advocate who led the 2010 Miami-to-Washington march of undocumented students that spawned the national Dream activist movement.

Before creating TheDream.US, Graham championed educational opportunity with the District of Columbia College Access Program (DC-CAP), and remains its board chairman. Framed photos of DC-CAP scholars are everywhere in his office.

Founded in 1998, DC-CAP provides scholarships for district students who are U.S. citizens.

"I am extremely interested in what strikes me as the unique deprivation of these Dreamers," Graham said, "but I come from a long background of helping all the students in my hometown go on to college. I'm not letting up on that."

Graham's family, whose fortune has been reported to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars, can trace its American success story to France, birthplace of his maternal great-grandfather Marc Eugene Meyer in 1842. Seeking opportunity in America, Meyer settled in San Francisco about the time of the Gold Rush. Son Eugene Meyer, born in 1875, would go on to buy the Post for $825,000 in a 1933 bankruptcy sale.

"His father," Graham said, "was an immigrant."

Before launching TheDream.US, Graham called former Washington schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee. She told him about "a particularly promising student" who was a member of her chancellor's student cabinet. A couple of years passed and she saw him behind the counter at a yogurt shop.

"She said, 'What happened?' " Graham said. The former student leaned in and whispered, "I'm undocumented."

To be eligible for TheDream.US, applicants must have qualified for the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which means they were younger than 16 when they entered the United States, have a clean criminal record, and graduated from high school or obtained a GED or an honorable discharge from the military. An estimated 455,000 students have protection from deportation under DACA.

TheDream.US applicants also would need to have graduated from high school with a grade-point average of at least 2.5, and agree to enroll in one of the dozen colleges participating in TheDream.US network.

These low-cost schools, located in California, Texas, New York, and Florida, the four states with the largest Dreamer populations, have agreed to provide a bachelor's degree for $25,000, which is the maximum amount of a TheDream.US grant.

"I am not advocating some position on the immigration bill," Graham said. "I am not wise enough to know what national immigration policy ought to be. But ... start reading in on this and you quickly find that thousands of students are graduating having literally no opportunity . . . unless some incredible piece of luck comes along in the form of a governor who knows one of them, or a university that says, 'My God, this student has so much on the ball, we'll offer them an education.' "

These students "are going to be here," he said. "If you think of that student at the yogurt shop ... it's better for the country [to foster his education]. That strikes me as a given."


BY THE NUMBERS

2,000

Number of young immigrants TheDream.US hopes to enable in the coming decade to graduate with "career-ready" degrees.

$25M

Amount raised by foundation from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Inter-American Development Bank, and others.

$25,000

Cost of a bachelor's degree at

12 low-cost schools, located in California, Texas, New York, and Florida, the the four states with the largest Dreamer populations.


mmatza@phillynews.com

215-854-2541 @MichaelMatza1

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