Alex Schneider: In college affordability debate, students’ expectations remain high

GW knows you would never turn down more activities, better technology and nicer dorms. In fact, it’s taking that gamble to the bank.

Your administration has spent 30 percent more on student services in the last five years. That’s 30 percent more money on services instead of studies since the start of the Great Recession.

Meanwhile, the costs for students keep rising. In 2011, the average GW student was in debt $32,714, according to the Project on Student Debt.

There’s a real dilemma here. With students paying nearly $60,000 a year, they want the biggest bang for their buck. They want the biggest, the brightest, the best.

And it seems like the administration is tuned in – a feat demonstrated by a wealth of Twitter handles and social media response staff. There are new buildings, more immediate attention and more employees. I even saw attempts to lighten the atmosphere with some new tropical palm trees in University Yard. (By the way, landscaping department, those trees look absolutely ridiculous.)

Students complain about high tuition, but they are not simply advocating for the University to rein in spending. And that’s a real reason to doubt the viability of President Barack Obama’s plan unveiled last week to lower tuition costs through the creation of a college affordability ratings system.

Students, particularly ones at GW, have demonstrated time and again that they will opt for more and better services packaged into the price of their education, with little regard for cost.

That’s why college affordability should not focus on punishing schools when their students graduate with debt, as the president suggested. Rather, we should try to change students’ expectations of our schools.

There do exist some heavy-handed policy measures that could bring down tuition costs – but no one will implement them. So let’s talk extremes for a minute.

For example, GW could cut charge different levels of tuition based on services a student receives. Or, it could require students to pay small “co-pays” when using a service, such as a late-night shuttle or the library after hours. Those who would benefit from the services would have to pay for them, and those who wouldn’t use them for financial purposes wouldn’t be burdened with an extra cost.

The rating system proposal merely informs students of the real costs of college. Instead, the government could place controls on how your tuition dollars are used. They could limit spending by capping 30 percent of tuition for use for non-educational or non-research uses. Federal financial aid would no longer pay for over-the-top services and projects.

Schools would be back in the business of education and teaching. Makes sense, right?

But no school administrator here would buy into these ideas because students would lose access to the new rite of passage that college has become: a life experience, more than a mere education.

And GW, more than other schools, caters to this demographic. It is a large school with an array of opportunities and an infamous cost that every administrator tries to justify. At the end of the day, it is students who aren’t willing to give all of that up.

It’s going to need to take more than a presidential speech to change student expectations.

At GW, that change won’t come easy. A 30 percent increase in tuition in five years amounts to a clear statement of misplaced values. Is that really what we want?

Alex Schneider is a second-year law student.

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