The price of admission? Tuition poses hurdle for incoming, prospective students

First in a series on high school perceptions of the university

Kendra Piza did not want her daughter to go to GW.

As a single mother raising two children, she insisted that a great education need not be expensive. She tried to show 17-year-old Jackie Piza other schools, but her efforts made little difference, she said. Her daughter was adamant about coming to Foggy Bottom.

“Honestly, it’s hard for a parent to look at your kid who has been great and given you no trouble and say to her, ‘You can’t go where you have your heart set,'” the mother said.

After many long conversations with her mom, Jackie Piza applied to GW and was accepted during the early decision process.

Since then, she has received more than $11,000 in annual financial aid, and Kendra Piza said she feels more comfortable sending her daughter to her top-choice school.

The superlative price tag still makes her a bit uneasy, though. “I’ve now committed to sending my daughter to the most expensive school in the country,” Piza said. “Why did I do that? I’m still trying to struggle with that, personally.”

GW became the first school in the country to exceed $50,000 in tuition and required fees this January when the Board of Trustees raised the tuition by 3.8 percent. The sum of tuition, room and board is $50,630 for next year’s class. Administrators attribute this high cost mostly to extensive financial aid and a fixed-tuition system, whereby freshmen pay the same rate for all four years.

Several college counselors, principals and high school seniors said the University is not clearly communicating these explanations to potential applicants who are scared by the initial price.

As the class of 2011 prepares to enroll at GW, some incoming students said that the expensive cost of attendance is a difficult obstacle to overcome. Those interviewed who did not apply said that – above its academic reputation or unique location – one of the University’s most standout features is its price tag.

Roadblock to interest in GW

Hannah McClintock, a senior at Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington, Va., stopped considering GW when she learned of the rising tuition. When discussing colleges with her friends, she said they also do not understand the cost.

“Everyone was like, ‘GW isn’t even an Ivy League school. It isn’t even a Georgetown or in that realm. So what business do they have charging $50,000 a year?'” McClintock said.

She read about the recent tuition hike in The Washington Post, but said she never heard about fixed tuition or the amount of financial aid to offset the cost.

Though he initially considered GW, high school senior Mel Zilora decided to look elsewhere when he came across next year’s costs. The student from Rochester, N.Y., said that at the $50,000 level, a slightly less-expensive school could be more appealing.

“When you’re looking at a field of lots of 30 and 40g schools with decent reputations, and you see an outlier with a 50g price tag, it’s tough to justify (the price) when there seem to be more affordable options,” Zilora wrote in an e-mail.

He added: “The decision not to visit was based on price. It seemed it would be out of our reach. I want to go to grad school, so getting a debt-free undergrad education is rather important to me.”

Sadaf Padder, a high school senior in Philadelphia who was accepted to the University in January, said whenever she discusses GW, talk about its nationally infamous price often arises.

“I’d say at least half the time I first bring up GW, people say, ‘Isn’t that the most expensive school in the country?'”

Padder added that the tuition and fees are not very much more than other expensive universities, but that it is more publicized for being No. 1.

Understanding, communicating the price

Bishop O’Connell college counselor Katie Boin said that when she advises students, she has trouble accounting for GW’s high tuition. This is because the admissions office is not sending the proper messages to counselors, she said.

“I think it’s pretty well-established that most of the communication that students get is going to come from their counselor,” Boin said, “and that is definitely not being communicated to me.”

She said that although her office has a good partnership with GW, the admissions office has not taken the initiative to convey the reasons behind the University’s costs.

“It’s not like they’re out here visiting our schools or sending us memos about their tuition being increased and giving us ways to explain that to families,” Boin added.

Though pricing was not a high priority for her when applying to schools, high school senior Cat Walsh said she learned a lot about the tuition explanations through extensive research. She read college books, spoke to GW students and sought advice from a college counselor.

“I know those things because I researched the school,” said Walsh, of Lower Merion, Pa. “But my family members and friends who didn’t apply to GW – who didn’t (do) research – aren’t aware of that.”

Rohini Mehta, a senior at Langley High School in McLean, Va., also said she did her homework by finding out a lot of facts about the school before applying. While some students interviewed said they never visited the University because of the price, Mehta took a campus tour.

The regular decision applicant she said she learned the most about tuition from her visit to Foggy Bottom, and that she had trouble finding that information on the Web site.

Barry Breen, president of Bishop O’Connell, said GW needs to work harder to encourage students to look past the price tag.

“I think there needs to be more emphasis on the amount of financial aid that’s given out, and the amount of scholarship money that’s available and what impact the fixed tuition might have,” Breen said.

Kathryn Napper, executive dean of Undergraduate Admissions, said the University explains its pricing structure in admission packets sent to students and parents, but is working to improve its overall communication.

“The tuition question is one that can get confusing for some applicants, particularly when the guidebooks and college listings on the Web do not allow us to indicate that the tuition is fixed,” Napper wrote in an e-mail. She added that a revamped admissions Web site will better address this issue.

Why the price?

Administrators say GW’s pricing system has several complexities that account for the high cost.

When the University adopted the fixed-tuition system in spring 2004, the cost rose by 16 percent, from $29,320 to $34,000. The large jump accounted for inflation and the expected tuition increases that would have taken place over four years with a normal rate plan.

Though fixed tuition was relatively unknown at the time, more than 30 colleges have since implemented the plan, according to a University report. The document stated that the price of a four-year education at GW is ranked ninth-most-expensive in the country, when compared to projections for non-fixed tuitions at “peer institutions.”

About 62 percent of students receive need-based or merit-based aid. Additionally, GW guarantees that a student’s financial assistance will not decrease during their undergraduate years.

Robert Chernak, senior vice president for Student and Academic Support Services, said the high tuition has not detracted from “interest in the institution.” He cites an increase in students choosing to enroll as evidence of GW’s improving reputation.

According to the Office of Institutional Research, since fixed tuition was enacted in spring 2004, applications were down for the first time in a decade.

Chernak said he recently reconsidered how the University communicates its pricing after reading a post about GW’s tuition on an online message board.

“It got me thinking, too, that we have also to do a better job on our communication on pricing – explaining just what the nuances are,” Chernak said. “We do it, but it could always be made clearer.”

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