Patrick Rochelle: Bring an end to merit aid

Media Credit: Hatchet File Photo
Patrick Rochelle

It’s the start of a new year, but there are some issues that never really go away. Such is the issue of high tuition and financial aid, which will continue to be the reality as long as the national unemployment rate hovers around 7.8 percent and student loan debt continues to rise.

And the realities of the economic landscape are apparent at GW, where about 64 percent of students receive financial aid.

But not all the money doled out each year is given to those students who truly need it. The University continues to provide a substantial amount of merit-based aid to incoming students who do not need financial assistance.

If the University stopped awarding merit aid to those who can afford to finance their education, it could maximize its impact during this time of widespread financial hardship.

The fight over merit-based aid is a perennial issue that never seems to gain much traction among colleges and universities around the country.

Over the past two decades, the use of merit-based aid has increased. According to a study by the Department of Education in October 2011, the number of students receiving merit based aid more than doubled to 14 percent from the 1995-1996 and 2007-2008 academic years.

At GW, the numbers aren’t much different.

GW reported that in the 2009-2010 academic year, 14.9 percent of aid offered was non-need based – or merit – aid, out of a pool of $141.8 million. That figure increased to 18.3 percent the following year. And then, 16 percent was reserved for merit aid for the year after that.

GW undoubtedly provides a significant amount of financial aid. For the 2012-13 academic year, GW increased the amount of aid it provided students to $163.4 million, a number which is approximately double what it was a decade ago, according to a Hatchet article from August 2012.

Despite the University’s efforts to increase financial aid, the cost of tuition has continued to rise annually. In February 2012, the University announced a 3.7 percent tuition increase.

And despite its efforts to award a considerable amount of aid, the fact remains that GW is still one of the most expensive colleges in the country. For the 2010-11 academic year, the total cost of attending GW was $55,625 and the average amount of debt students had upon graduation that same year was $32,714, according to The Project on Student Debt.

Of course, GW is no longer the most expensive school in the country, but it is still far from affordable.

Administrators fear that if they did actually stop using merit aid, it would put the University at a disadvantage.

“If we stopped offering aid and other institutions did not, it would make it harder to achieve our enrollment objectives,” Associate Vice President for Student Financial Assistance Dan Small told me in an email.

The fear is that if GW stopped giving merit aid, students would matriculate instead to rival institutions.

Getting rid of merit aid might seem like a sure way for GW to fall short of its competition, but dropping this form of financial assisance would put the University ahead of the pack in terms of commitment to affordability.

If GW decides to stop giving merit aid, it would set a standard for other institutions to follow. But until then, there will continue to be a stalemate, and students from across the country will continue to be awarded with scholarships they don’t need while others will likely choose an institutions based on financial constraints.

In the next decade, GW is hoping to double the number of international undergraduate students, according to its 10-year strategic plan. And with this rise in students from overseas, who do not receive financial aid benefits, will come a flood of tuition dollars.

Money should be spent on those students who can’t afford a college education, not those who can.

Patrick Rochelle, a senior majoring in English, is The Hatchet’s opinions editor.

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