Tori Guy was unpacking her belongings in Thurston Hall when she found out her father lost his job.
Already dependent on aid for 60 percent of her GW bills, Guy turned to the University for additional help and requested an emergency grant from the Office of Financial Aid.
She was turned down.
As her family’s unpaid bills piled up, the political science major continued attending classes. Guy said her family tried to make ends meet for two years after the University declined to grant her additional funds. But after racking up more than $20,000 in debt, the junior – elected president of the Black Student Union last spring – decided not to return to GW this year. She plans to transfer to Cleveland State University, in her hometown, this fall.
“Unemployment is a nationwide epidemic. When it comes to the little people who can’t pay, the University really doesn’t try to make it affordable," she said. "It’s disheartening.”
Guy, whose family struggled to stay afloat during the economic downturn, is among the 4 percent of students on financial aid who drop out of GW each year because they can no longer foot the bill.
While GW broke out of Forbes Magazine's list of the nation's top 10 most expensive colleges in 2010, its price tag has risen about $6,500 in the last six years. Students enrolling at GW this fall will pay $60,385 each year until they graduate.
About 64 percent of students receive some sort of monetary help from the University, Associate Vice President for Financial Assistance Dan Small said.
Last year, about 200 students received emergency funds from GW. Small declined to provide the number of students who applied for grants but were ultimately rejected.
While Guy said her experience here left a “bad taste” in her mouth, she has no “negative feelings” toward GW.
“I really appreciate all the University has done and how they tried to accommodate my family being in debt to them. A college is a business," she said. "I understand that."
Small said the financial aid office tracks and processes data to get a better grasp of why students do not return to GW, but declined to detail the procedure for determining a student's aid. He said aid officers review applications and documents with a "set formula" – not on a case-by-case basis.
“Every effort is made to be consistent in our evaluation process to distribute our funds in an equitable manner," Small said.
Just four out of 605 students who dropped housing last spring cited financial reasons, Director of GW Housing Programs Seth Weinshel said. The rest went abroad, graduated early or transferred out of the University.
The University has tried to help anchor students to GW by expanding the financial aid pool in recent years, as more and more students seek need-based aid.
The financial aid pool ballooned to $163.4 million for the 2012-2013 school year – nearly double that of 10 years ago.
But the class of 2016 received 6 percent less financial aid than last year’s freshman class, after three years of freshmen receiving the most aid out of any class at GW.
The average family contribution for each class is shrinking as well: The Class of 2015 was expected to contribute 77 percent of tuition, compared to the Class of 2014's 85 percent of tuition. GW aims to meet between 94 and 96 percent of the average student’s demonstrated need through a combination of institutional money, federal funding and loans.
The Board of Trustees approved a 3.7 percent tuition hike for students entering the University this fall, up from the previous year’s increase of 2.9 percent. Tuition increases do not affect returning undergraduate students, who are guaranteed a fixed cost of attendance from their freshman year.
With a national debate swirling around jobless rates and student debt – which crossed the $1 trillion mark last spring and has also outpaced credit card debt – GW has sought to lessen the burden on students. In 2010, it created the need-based Power and Promise Fund.
For Jack Herron, a second year graduate student in the Elliott School of International Affairs, college costs and a poor job market have forced him to choose between pursuing an internship related to his field and paying off his tuition bills.
“It’s a trade-off between here and now, being able to afford being here, minimizing the cost to be here at GW or going into more debt, being unable to continue paying off my loans,” said Herron, who is paying for higher education with a combination of student loans and his own savings.
And as a graduate student, Jack Herron is not protected by the fixed rate that shields undergraduates from tuition increases.
Although he originally thought of GW as his top undergraduate choice, Herron ultimately decided to earn his bachelor’s from the University of Georgia, because as an in-state resident, he could attend for free. He said he was lucky to emerge without debt as an undergraduate, which helps him justify the possibility of taking on an unpaid internship this year.
Looking long-term, Herron knows that, with steep competition, “experience is needed down the road to help me secure a job.”