Tuition hikes take toll on students

Sophomore Alex Buder transferred to GW last year hoping to complete a double major in art and political science within four years. He had enough credits to accomplish his goal, but what he did not have was the money.

Buder, whose parents’ Massachusetts hospitality business has been hit hard by a stumbling economy, cannot afford to spend four years here and will graduate a semester early, in December 2006, with one major.

“My family rents a house but because it’s in a high-priced real estate area and I’m a transfer student, I don’t get financial aid,” he said. “I have to graduate a semester early and start working because it’s just too expensive for my family.”

While University administrators said this week that they recognize some students are struggling to keep up with GW’s tuition – which will rise once again for current sophomores and juniors – they said high tuition is not impacting graduation rates.

Sophomores and juniors pay $30,820 and $30,530 in tuition, respectively, figures that the Board of Trustees are expected to increase by at least 4 percent at its Friday meeting (see “Board to raise tuition,” p. 1). Not counting housing costs, GW students paid the fifth highest tuition in the nation in 2004, according to a CNN article.

Freshmen and next year’s incoming class will pay a static tuition during their stay at GW. University officials said last year that having a fixed tuition makes GW the most expensive school in the country for incoming students.

GW’s four-year graduation rate in 2003 was 69.1 percent, lower than Georgetown’s, New York University’s, and Tufts’, but higher than Boston University’s and Tulane’s.

University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg said the number is not a result of students being priced out of GW.

He added that the University’s fixed tuition plan, now in its second admissions season, is designed to “make attending GW easier” and is not an indication that the school thinks students are dropping out.

“There are a variety of reasons why GW has a different graduation rate than other universities,” he said. “I think tuition is surely one of (those reasons), but it isn’t an A to B relationship. It’s a lot of different things.”

Trachtenberg added that many schools with higher graduation rates have four-credit, four-course semesters, which allow students to hold jobs and receive full course credit simultaneously with less difficulty. It is tougher to hold a job and take five courses a semester, he said.

Trachtenberg made an unsuccessful push in 2003 to make most GW classes four credits.

Daniel Small, director of Student Financial Services, said that over the last four years the school has increased financial aid at a higher percentage than tuition, better enabling his office to provide proportionately more funding to students who need it.

“There are times when we do lose students for purely financial reasons, but those cases are very rare,” he said. “We hate to lose anyone because of the cost.”

Financial aid is valid for eight semesters, after which a committee re-evaluates how much monetary assistance the school will provide for a student who has not yet graduated. Small said the committee generally grants additional funds for a ninth, and in some cases tenth semester, if there is a legitimate reason the student did not graduate within four years.

“We’re going to look at individual cases,” Small said. “We’re not trying to prevent someone from graduating.” The eight-semester rule applies only to terms during which a student is paying tuition, he added. A leave of absence does not count as a financial aid semester.

Whether students are being priced out of applying to GW is more difficult to evaluate.

This year, the school received another record number of applications, but the increase is less than it has been in years past. As of Wednesday, the University received 19,750 applications, nearly 500 short of the 20,159 it handled last year. Officials said they are still processing applications even though the Jan. 15 Regular Decision deadline has passed.

Kathryn Napper, director of Undergraduate Admissions, said the smaller increase in applicants could be the result of a “natural progression” that occurs at most colleges.

“There is a point where the number of applications is going to level off,” she said, adding that it is also difficult for her to gauge the impact of cost on students’ decisions because they often do not consider that factor in their preliminary college search.

“We don’t get a lot of questions about fixed tuition,” she said. “People worry about the price later on in the process.”

Some students on the fixed tuition plan questioned how effectively the school’s financial aid program accommodates all students.

Freshman Sam Buchbinder, who pays around $33,000 a year including room and board thanks to his merit scholarship, said middle-class families get the raw end of the financial aid deal.

“I think for some people they do a good job … however, I feel that middle class students are placed in a position of financial hardship,” he said. “The wealthier students are able to afford the school, and the lower middle class students get the financial aid they need, yet the middle class or upper middle class are given next to none.”

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