As students become more like customers, GW faced with swelling demands

With tensions still high after a string of unpopular administrative decisions this summer, students might be tempted to think GW is paying little attention to them. But in reality, GW has never been more tuned in.

The University ­­– which relies on student satisfaction for tuition dollars, national rankings and professor reviews – has spent 30 percent more on services in the last five years, allowing it to meet students’ rising demands by hiring extra hands, adding programs and expanding official outreach.

Administrators past and present agree that this generation of students is increasingly bringing a “consumer mentality” to college, putting pressure on officials to create a college experience that is worth nearly $60,000 a year. In turn, that demand is driving up the cost of college even further.

“People didn’t used to come to a university thinking they were coming to a spa or a four-star Caribbean hotel. It’s a different nature, a different community,” former University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, who still teaches at GW, said. “I sort of regret that we have become more like the marketplace, where people expect malls and such when they come to a campus.”

Executive Vice President and Treasurer Lou Katz said support no longer means just counseling and academic advising. He pointed to multi-million dollar programs like GW’s security escort service 4-Ride, as well as the swell of student organizations and the need for upgraded power systems and internet in residence halls. “The students do want more, and it’s expensive,” Katz said.

The service, too, has become real-time and 24/7. To help GW identify student gripes and grievances, the University has tasked a three-person social media team, including Jonathan Hussey, with the duty to rapidly respond.

“We’re looking at what people are saying at all times,” said Hussey, who has spent the last year monitoring hashtags and skimming lists of students, faculty and alumni on an hourly basis. “We see every aspect of student life. We chime in when we can, we try to help when we can.”

Nearly every department at GW now runs a Twitter account, Hussey said, which allows him to regularly pass along online concerns so “the right person” can personally respond. He said the bar has been set by Dean of Student Affairs Peter Konwerski, who has been at GW since he lived in Thurston Hall as a freshman and frequently tweets even after midnight to address student complaints.

GW has also invested in programs that give students face-to-face time with staff. A $2 million services hub brought dozens of staffers – including those from the Center for Student Engagement and GW’s Study Abroad programs – under one roof to lure more students to drop by. The administration pumped $150,000 more into its counseling center budget this year for additional staff and hours.

Then there are those luxurious residence halls – like West Hall – built with dining rooms and fitness centers; the constant changes to J Street dining options; and Gelman Library’s $16 million first floor facelift.

“Colleges are turning into businesses”
The heightened focus on supporting students outside of the classroom mirrors a national focus on better customer service in higher education. After students spend their high school careers “shopping” for schools, they arrive on campus with bigger expectations than ever, higher education experts argue.

“Colleges are turning into businesses where customers – in this case, students – expect to be satisfied,” Jeff Selingo, editor-at-large of the Chronicle of Higher Education, wrote in his book, “College Unbound,” this May.

Those rising expectations are driving up the price of college, Selingo wrote, particularly because more staff have had to be hired to run things like intramural sports and student organizations.

But one of the best-known faces in GW student life, Associate Dean of Students Tim Miller, said the idea that students are GW’s customers “belittles what the college experience is about and equates it to buying a stereo or a cheeseburger at McDonald’s.”

GW’s role as an educational institution – which includes not only classroom materials but also disciplinary roles – is far from from a company-customer relationship, he said, though the administration still must answer to students.

For $60,000, an expectation for top service
At GW, there’s extra pressure for the school to satisfy its students, said Hugo Scheckter, a 2013 graduate who called his GW experience far below par.

“I get really frustrated when programs and services aren’t in a top 10 standard, top 25 or top 100,” he said. If he went to a community college, he said, he “wouldn’t be expecting all the best facilities, but here, you do – especially if you’re paying full tuition.”

Out of a total $32,860 spent by the University per student each year, about $13,798 goes toward programs and services, according to higher education research group College Measures. That figure puts GW in the middle of the pack compared to more than a dozen similar institutions, and far behind schools like Southern Methodist and Duke universities, which spend nearly $20,000 per student on services.

“You think about it, you’re paying $60,000 a year for service. Anywhere else in the world, you pay $60,000 and you receive top service. This university seems to be an exception,” Scheckter said.

After four years, Scheckter’s frustration boiled over: “King Hugo” launched a high-profile bid for Student Association president – with the core message of “Fuck GW” – to call out administrators for basing their decisions on the bottom line.

Among the sticking points: GW’s $33 million textile museum, which Scheckter blasted for taking up precious square footage without benefiting undergraduates. He also took aim at University President Knapp’s $1.17 million paycheck, which makes him one of the top-paid presidents in the country.

After landing nearly 800 votes in the election and placing third overall, Scheckter said the success of his campaign was “clear evidence of how people are disenfranchised.”

“Building spirit at GW”
Katz, 63, came to GW in 1990 at the start of an era when administrators tried to use lavish spending to brand GW as a national destination. Students took campus tours in double-decker buses and arrived at orientation to a $75,000 laser light show. Trachtenberg has said that while those extras swelled the cost of attendance, it also attracted more top-achieving students who could afford the steeper price tag.

“Right or wrong, that was to help build spirit at the institution,” Katz said. “You can debate that to death, but there were some positives to come out of it and negatives that came out of it.”

Six years into University President Steven Knapp’s tenure, he has pulled amenities like student maid service, the Fishbowl study space and the cheap campus bowling alley and redirected $20 million into academics, research and career services. He has also hired more administrators to oversee specific areas like distance learning and veterans services.

Despite efforts, though, some students still say the administration has failed to see what students want from their college. SA leaders say they are working to make sure student voices are some of the loudest in the room.

Daniel Egel-Weiss, a leader in the SA Senate, said students must be more proactive or risk being left out of more decisions, like the new off-campus housing policies that could clamp down on rowdy student behavior in order to appease Foggy Bottom neighbors.

“Considering what’s happened over the last few weeks and over the summer, our first goal is being an advocate for the students, voicing concerns over these new policies,” Egel-Weiss said. “[Administrators] know we have concerns, and going forward nothing like that will happen again.”

Still, SA President Julia Susuni said the SA needs to strike a balance between cordial relations and playing hardball with administrators.

Susuni said she will appoint multiple students to work more closely with the University’s Faculty Senate on committees ranging from the library system to athletics – a kind of direct representation that’s traditionally been absent from top university decision-making bodies.

“It’s really important to be able to work with the administration, and do actual things and make positive changes,” Susuni said. “People inherently understand that you’re elected for a reason, and people pick you for a reason.”

– Cory Weinberg, Chloe Sorvino and Brianna Gurciullo contributed to this report

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