Kyle Spector: It’s lonely at the top

It was only four years ago when I first learned to append most of my thoughts about the University with “I’m paying $40,000 a year for this?”

Now, incoming freshmen must update their figures in this knee-jerk reaction by GW students to almost any malfunction or absurdity of the University. With the official matriculation price tag now more than $50,000 a year and few discernable signs that the quality of education has increased along with its price, students will surely have more incentive to complain.

More important than the predictable whining of a student population that voluntarily chooses to bear these financial burdens, however, are the more abstract costs of having the singular distinction of being the highest-priced school in the country. If left unchecked, these costs will inevitably outpace the short-term gains realized each time tuition is raised.

Granted, tuition prices are increasing across the board. It is more expensive each year to attend any school, private or public, in-state or out-of-state. The issue at hand for GW, however, is that this University now serves as the preeminent example of increasing costs amid flat or declining returns for higher education. Being known as the most expensive school in the country makes GW an easy target for journalists who tout its impressive prices as evidence for widespread tuition increases.

To their credit, the University media relations office has tried to offset the negative effect of such coverage both by pointing to increases in the level of institutional financial aid and spinning the benefits of GW’s fixed-tuition plan as the superior model. Unfortunately, these press releases and charts stand a poor chance in the face of media outlets looking for the bottom line on tuition numbers. In fact, when CNNMoney.com listed GW as the most expensive school in the country late last year, their writers chose not to cite any of the alternative reasoning provided by the GW media relations team. I’m not surprised.

In any final calculation, the perception of GW as an ultra-pricey and accordingly an ultra-elitist institution will always outpace the University’s ability to counter it with increases in institutional aid. Picture an exceptionally talented high-school junior from a lower-middle income family, for instance. When she broaches the subject of attending GW with her parents, they reject it outright due to financial concerns.

Although hypothetical, this situation is easy to imagine. As tuition prices begin to trump all the benefits of studying in Foggy Bottom for potential students and their parents, the pool from which the University is able to pull talented students will continue to shrink, the quality of GW’s educational experience will diminish, and the University will find itself unable to maintain the queer economics of increased costs and decreased returns.

University officials will argue that they continue to attract academically better freshman classes each year regardless of the costs. Plus, as long as students and their parents are willing to sign up to attend GW even with such exorbitant costs, I understand that the Board of Trustees has no reason to reduce tuition. Still, GW has only been No. 1 on CNNMoney’s most expensive schools list for one year. The effects of such a dubious achievement might not be noticeable in the short-term, but to ignore this issue now will certainly invite a degradation of the GW experience in years to come.

One notable exception to the trend of increasing college costs is Princeton University, which chose not to raise undergraduate tuition for next year. Princeton accomplished this feat through an overachieving endowment – its investment returns were high enough to prevent a tuition hike. Though the GW endowment did reach $1 billion this year, it is not performing at the same level as Princeton. It might be time to put some of GW’s high-priced plans on the backburner until the endowment reaches certain benchmarks that make these future projects feasible without continued tuition increases.

The Board of Trustees should seriously consider keeping tuition prices stable for a year or two so that GW can come down from its perch as the highest-priced college in the land. Otherwise, the costs of such a high-tuition might turn out to be more than the University can bear.

-The writer, a senior majoring in international affairs, is the Hatchet senior opinions editor.

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