A rich kid reputation?

What GW's price tag says about its student body

by Nicole Wetherell

GW is one of the most expensive colleges in the country. Take a look at the student body and you might wonder if it shows.

Gucci sunglasses, UGG boots and other designer labels are no strangers in many students' closets, and some fancy cars are no strangers on the streets. At $36,400 for this year's tuition, GW is the second-most-expensive college in the country, according to a CNNmoney.com report from last October. Only a college in Vermont that specializes in teaching students with learning disabilities beats out GW for heftiest price tag.

"It's not a shocker that the people here have money," said senior Addia Cooper-Henry, founder and editor in chief of Verse, a magazine on campus that describes itself as "a high-end fashion and entertainment publication for the young elite."

Verse features reviews of restaurants, lounges, bars, clubs, boutiques and performance venues, as well as yearbook-style photographs of students partying in posh clubs around D.C.

Cooper-Henry knows about the extravagant lifestyle that some students enjoy. She said she knows students who keep multiple cars handy to show off on the D.C. streets. She said others might jet to New York for a weekend to go clubbing and shopping if they feel like spending some cash.

"Their parents raise them to be extravagant and not-so-modest," she said of some of GW's more wealthy students.

Verse receives advertising revenue from high-end Georgetown retailers, whom she said need little persuasion to shell out around $1,200 for a full-page ad.

"I don't think that we need to convince them. I think they already know," Cooper-Henry said. "They recognize these people (featured in the magazine). They're like 'Oh, they were in my store.'"

Although her magazine features some of GW's cash-happy students, Cooper-Henry said the socialite magazine is not exclusively for the wealthy audience.

"To be an elite has nothing to do with your wealth. It's more of a term that's coined for people who like to be social - to socialize in the eyes of the press and the public," she said.

Still, to be elite, it helps to be able to afford the posh lifestyle that's associated with the title. But, just how many of GW's students can?

Figuring financial aid

It's true - not everyone applies for financial aid at one of the most expensive universities in the United States. But the majority of the undergraduate student body does.

About 60 percent of undergraduates receive financial aid, and GW gave nearly $110 million in scholarships and grants (both need-based and non-need-based) this year, Director of Student Financial Aid Dan Small said.

Last year, GW gave $91.2 million in scholarships and grants, according to GW's 2004-2005 Common Data Set, a standard compilation of school information that colleges complete each year. The undergraduate student population has remained at about 10,000 from last year to this year.

Other private universities listed institutional aid at just above the $100 million range for last year. New York University's Common Data Set says it handed out about $106 million with an undergraduate population of nearly 20,000. Boston University's set lists institutional aid at just above $138 million for its undergraduate population of about 18,000. State schools such as the University of Maryland and the University of Virginia, which have much lower tuition bills, tend to have annual scholarship and grant totals close to $20 million.

The average household income of a student who applied for financial aid this year is $98,300, according to the Office of Financial Aid. U.S. Census Bureau data from 2004 lists the average household income in the U.S. at just more than $60,000.

While many students receive money from the school, nearly half of GW's undergraduates did not apply for any financial aid to help offset tuition costs last year.

Financial aid applicants do not necessarily represent the 60 percent of students with the lowest household income. Students and their parents use a variety of methods to gather tuition money and don't necessarily apply for financial aid even if they might qualify, Small said.

"People are doing a variety of creative financing," Small said. Commercial loans, monthly payment plans and other similar financing options are used to pay hefty GW bills, but are not tracked by the Office of Financial Aid because they don't directly impact the University, Small said.

The urban backdrop

When it comes to the cost of attending GW, any D.C. resident who eats and sleeps will tell you that tuition is only part of the story.

An urban environment such as D.C. is a fitting locale for those with money to burn, but it also drives up the cost of living.

According to CNNmoney.com, Washington, D.C., is the fifth-most expensive American city to live in. An article on the Web site last October pegged the annual cost of living in D.C. at $102,589 - about 67 percent above the national average for a city. These costs were determined for a typical family of four earning $60,000 a year.

D.C. is also the 13th-most-expensive place in the United States to rent a home, at a price of $17.54 per square foot, according to an article on MSN's real estate Web site.

A school divided?

At a school as expensive as GW, there are students on scholarship and financial aid, and students with enough dough to foot the bill. The question is: does it matter who's who?

"I feel like there's a line between kids who got scholarships here and

the ones who didn't," senior Brie Waltman said.

Waltman said students with less money often find humor at the expense of the bigger spenders with expensive sunglasses, boots and the like.

"Everybody talks about how stupid it is, but we're all here. If (students) didn't like it, they would transfer," Waltman said.

Comments on college rating Web sites expose some attitudes toward a possible money divide on campus.

Campusdirt.com is a division of financialaid.com, CIT finance group's Web site with information on loans and scholarships. It features quotes from more than 690,000 undergraduates and recent graduates about their college experiences. On the site, the quality of the GW student body is given a cumulative rating of two out of five.

One purported student from the class of 2007 posted on the site, "Prada should be our corporate sponsor."

"This place will make you want to live in a cabin in the woods and plan schemes to overthrow Prada, Versace, Hard Tail, Gucci, Juicy ... " wrote another student from the class of 2008.

Of course, it's not exactly a tale of two cities at GW. There are students who don't qualify for need-based aid, but receive merit-based aid. And there are students whose families barely miss the mark in order to qualify for financial aid, but certainly aren't easily paying the bills, either. For every student, though, one thing is for sure: someone's paying.

"Higher education's a business, honey," said Jane Vandell of the College and Career Center at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Va. "Anybody who goes to college needs to have some money from somewhere."

Vandell, whose husband got his master's degree at GW ("It's the most expensive piece of paper in my house"), said GW is not looked upon as a school for rich kids in her district. She said it's a college anyone can attend as long as they are able to get financial aid or other money from the school.

Once you're in the door, she said, "you're going to get a good education whether you have money or not."

View the policies on commenting here.

blog comments powered by Disqus