Staff Editorial: How alumni can help change GW for the better

As alumni strolled around campus this weekend, walking from the Cyndi Lauper concert to happy hour, they probably noticed that a few things have changed since they called GW home.

Academic and research buildings devoted to science, engineering, public health and the arts are nearly complete. Faculty are armed with millions more research dollars than a decade ago. GW admitted 40 percent of its applicants 11 years ago while it now lets in a third.

But the reality is that the the improvements would not have happened without a financial boost from tuition dollars, real estate investments and, most importantly, donations.

Now, the University is on the verge of a fundraising campaign that will ideally total at least $1 billion to pay for better professors, more modern buildings and financial aid checks. In the long run, this will raise the value of graduates’ degrees.

But unless donations continue to pour in, University progress will slow. And that’s institutional suicide.

The University can’t improve without fundraising dollars. To incentivize giving, administrators should double their efforts to increase financial aid programs for current and future students.

So far, alumni haven’t been convinced about giving back. Although GW has over 250,000 graduates, many alumni from 20 or 30 years ago don’t feel connected to an institution that has changed so much since they were students.

The annual alumni giving rate hovers at 9 percent, far below GW’s competitors.

That fundraising futility threatens GW’s future. When similar universities – like University of Southern California, Washington University in St. Louis and New York University – run laps around GW with fundraising, it will be nearly impossible to catch up.

Alumni may have an understandable resistance to giving. Young alumni likely do not have a financial cushion to even consider hefty donations. Older alumni attended GW when its lack of academic prowess made it a second-class school.

It’s also reasonable for alumni to be skeptical about where they’re giving their money. Scandals that have hit the University in the past year degrade confidence in the institution.

But despite administrative misdeeds, alumni should rally around at least one cause: financial aid for current students.

When deciding whether or not to donate, alumni often ask themselves, “What did the University give to me?” For many students receiving scholarships, the answer is a four-year degree. If the University uses fundraising dollars to create more financial aid pots for students, recipients will feel a sense of indebtedness to GW that will encourage them to give back.

We’ve seen it before in GW’s biggest donors. Former Board of Trustees chair Russell Ramsey came to GW on scholarship, and has a big giving record. Trustee James Humphreys has poured money into financial aid to help pay GW back for his education, including a $1 million gift for law school financial aid packages two years ago.

Without financial assistance, a debt-free GW education seems only possible for the richest students. The University risks becoming socioeconomically homogeneous, which is frightening since it is already notorious for its overwhelmingly white, wealthy, New England student population.

As much as GW has improved and changed over the last decade, it still struggles to attract low-income or minority students. A meager 8.7 percent of the student population identifies as black, while 5.9 percent is Hispanic.

Only 13 percent of students were eligible for Pell grants in 2011, and those students paid over $14,000 in tuition. That put GW in a group of colleges with high net prices and few low-income students in a New America Foundation study in May.

This track threatens GW’s place as a premier institution that can attract the best of the best, no matter what their backgrounds are. More financial aid can reverse this trend.

So the giving momentum must continue. Yearly gifts for financial aid have doubled since University President Steven Knapp came to GW, and it’s up to current alumni to make sure this positive trend doesn’t slow down.

The responsibility rests on alumni to sustain GW’s progress by giving donations – both large and small.

We can change this institution.

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