Donald Parsons: GW’s lost decade

In a welcome departure from past GW practices, the administration, specifically Senior Vice President Robert Chernak of Student and Academic Support Services, has engaged in a continuing public dialogue with faculty over perceived undergraduate admissions woes, indicating that focus may now be returning to academics and to attracting the best students to GW.

Faculty concerns are summarized in an April 2008 Faculty Senate Committee Report, “The Decline of Elite Freshman Enrollments at GW,” which noted that the merit aid budget had been slashed in recent years.

In return, Chernak argued that the University could no longer afford to pursue elite students because “the cost of doing so in student aid dollars would leave insufficient funds to meet the more global enrollment and budget goals of the University.”

In October, Chernak expanded on the administration’s views in a public letter and in follow-up interviews to The Hatchet (“Economic woes alter admissions strategy,” Oct. 16, p. 1) and the national press (“An Elite Dilemma,” Inside Higher Education, Oct. 29).

He stressed a new element – the ominous financial times and the need to reserve resources for current students, stating, “Obviously we would like to keep up that momentum but that might not be possible in these economic times.”

Chernak later reported to The Hatchet that the administration is requesting from the Board of Trustees an additional $8 million – and perhaps more – in need-based aid next year to help students and their families deal with the downturn.

For GW, this is a large sum, essentially absorbing all the additional revenue coming from Square 54 on the old hospital site, which the administration had hoped to use to help fund the Science and Engineering Complex and other academic initiatives.

As an economist, I share the administration’s concern about the current financial and economic downturn, and I laud its emphasis on cushioning the impact on current students. That said, one can only lament the lost opportunities that preceded the current financial crisis. Like Japan in the 1990s, GW in the first decade of the 21st century is suffering through a “lost decade.”

The lazy drift downward in GW’s US News and World Report college ranking – 46th in 1996 to 50th in 1998, to the 52-54 range in recent years – is one indication that GW has lost its academic “momentum.” Internal data suggest much the same. The 2004 freshman class, the last one as large as the current one, had application numbers, acceptance rates, yield rates, SAT scores and class rankings virtually identical to those in the freshman class of 2008.

The stalled progress in GW’s lost decade pre-dates the recent financial crisis. In earlier, more prosperous years, the University used money, which would normally go toward strengthening educational activities, to satisfy its building dreams.

As I argued several years ago in The Hatchet (“Where Has Your Tuition Gone?” Feb. 27, 2006, p. 4), recent graduates and current students have been a major, if perhaps unwitting, contributors to GW’s future physical plant. The closed-course headaches that students face at every registration, the understaffing of advising and other critical support functions – these are not accidents, but the logical consequences of spending on projects of more interest to the administration.

Even as it was cutting merit aid offers to elite students, the administration was pushing money into dorms that strike most GW faculty as incomprehensibly opulent. This strategy is unlikely to draw the best and brightest from around the world, even though many still come for other reasons.

President Knapp can fairly claim that past University priorities were not his doing, and his administration’s decision to allocate additional funds for student aid is certainly a welcome sign of a more student-focused strategy. Alas, the president is in the unenviable position of having to restore GW’s educational ambitions in the midst of the current financial storm. One can only wish him good luck.

The writer is a professor of economics and chair of the Faculty Senate special subcommittee on educational quality.

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