When George Washington conceived of placing a university in the country’s capital, we’re told, his aspirations for it were grand. He imagined a magnet school that would attract the nation’s most talented youth: a premier university for what was to become a premier city.
Today, we may note the irony that Washington’s vision was better realized at Georgetown University, not GW, and we can bitterly resign ourselves to accepting this will always be the case. Or, we can adapt Washington’s ambition to our times and ask: Can the nation’s capital support two premier universities? I believe it can – and so do our administrators.
GW’s administration has been waging a campaign these past few years to push us up into top-tier status. We have a plan for all fronts: a Strategic Plan for academics, a Campus Plan for construction, a plan for fundraising, etc.
There is one long-term plan, though, noticeably lacking: a plan for financial affordability. Until such a plan is developed and implemented, we will be unable to attain the stature we seek, no matter how many other improvements are made.
In the ’90s, GW administrators discovered the best method of increasing the applicant pool was to raise tuition. This approach, dubbed the “golden standard,” relied on students to identify price as an indicator of prestige. It worked. As tuition skyrocketed, so did applications and enrollment. We rode this approach as far as it would take us: to having one of the highest tuitions in the nation and, in 2004, receiving a record-high number of applications.
With application figures stalled for the second year in a row, however, we have exhausted the benefits of the tuition hikes and now must live with the results.
We are now recognized nationwide as a school of second-rate academic quality catering to students from insanely wealthy families. Prospective students look at our tuition as a promise of all the fun to be had in our academic theme park, then complain loudly over each and every slight. Our class-conscious student body is marked by resentment between haves and have nots.
These are certainly undesirable grounds on which to sustain a university, yet our administrators seem unable to acknowledge these barriers to our ascent. Removed from students, they cannot perceive the social divide in the student body. Themselves financially well-off, they cannot imagine a parent forbidding a student from applying to or attending GW. They are unconcerned with the substantial number of extremely talented, middle-class students who would never consider GW because of the financial costs.
The current prescription, to let a large number of wealthy students pay financial aid for a smaller number of less-affluent ones, will not create the student body of a top-tier school. We do not have the luxury, as do Ivy League schools, of being a school which attracts the nation’s best students while also being one few students can afford. Our rise will be charted by our ability to shift from being the latter to the former. It will be a long process, but it is certainly one worth planning for and embarking upon.
Administrators may point to steadily increasing SAT averages of incoming freshmen, but there is another statistic they might consider: the top reason students leave GW, in my opinion, is due to lack of intellectual challenge. When we do manage to attract the very best students, they don’t stay. Students dissatisfied with GW aren’t only concerned about what goes on in the classroom; more often, it is the school’s social dynamic that determines whether students are stimulated and satisfied.
I’m aware of the objections: the endowment’s too small for such a project, adjunct pay needs to be addressed first, it’s theoretically possible for all students to attend (if they’re willing to mortgage their lives). Still, we ought to devise a long-range plan for making GW more affordable, more meritocratic, less divided by class. Perhaps, addressing two problems at once, we could begin by cutting back on the very luxuries that are attracting students who may not be here for the right reasons.
If we would eventually like to be a university composed of top-caliber students, we cannot continue to court primarily the richest. The golden standard did put us on the map, but it will take a different strategy to make us great. We might call it the George Washington standard.
-The writer, a sophomore majoring in English, is a Hatchet columnist.