When University President Steven Knapp headed to the White House last week, he joined about 100 other college leaders who pitched ways to support President Barack Obama’s “year of action” to shrink education inequality across the nation.
But higher education experts say the efforts to expand college access – in GW’s case, helping out with college preparation in low-income D.C. schools and partnering with more community colleges – likely won’t make much of a dent.
Sandy Baum, a senior fellow in the Graduate School of Education and Human Development who specializes in higher education finance, said the summit and the commitments pledged by colleges were mostly public image moves.
“There’s not much dramatically innovative. Most of these things cost money. They’re going to get slapped if they raise prices to pay for the commitments,” Baum said.
Baum added that because most of the participants were from universities that do not enroll a large number of low-income students, the effects will be minor. About 14 percent of GW students are eligible for Pell Grants this year – up from 9 percent in 2008 and on par with most peer private schools – but still on the lower rung for universities nationwide.
To help boost the representation of low-income students on campus and nationwide, the University will send admissions staff members to public high schools the District. GW officials will also work with nonprofits to host workshops on campus and at local libraries, helping students write essays and fill out applications. Some of GW’s outreach will focus on local middle school students to get them to start thinking about college early.
Former University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, who led GW for 19 years as its tuition doubled, said any efforts GW makes will be on too small a scale to make a real difference.
“That’s good, but give me a break. The only way we’re going to really fix the problem is by having more accessible universities and calls for major scholarships,” Trachtenberg said. “Poor people’s problem is not that they don’t know how to fill out the application. It’s that they don’t have the money to pay the tuition.”
Trachtenberg, now a higher education consultant, said that the only sweeping changes that will make a vast difference will come from a Congressional commitment to boost federal money for Pell Grants.
Among the 14 schools GW considers its competitors, five others laid out large commitments to tackle college affordability. Of those, all announced specific targeted groups of students to bring to campus the following year as well as financial aid expansions.
Northwestern University, for example, said it would enroll at least 100 local Chicago public high school students. It will also spend $1 million to bring 200 Chicago public school students to the Northwestern Academy and help them prepare for college.
An eye on affordability
GW already boasts three major affordability efforts. Fixed tuition locks in the price of education during a student’s time at GW, while the SJT Scholar Program offers full scholarships to top D.C. high school students. Both were created more than a decade ago.
On the fundraising side, the Power and Promise Fund helps cover tuition for low-income students. The program raised $15.6 million last year, up more than 13 percent from 2012.
The fund is just one aspect of the University’s total student aid pool, which has increased from $118 million in 2008 to more than $160 million in 2012. Administrators have also converted more of that money from merit to need-based aid in recent years.
While GW’s average cost of attendance is about $24,000 – far lower than the sticker price of $58,488 – it continues to battle its pricey reputation.
The average net price for Pell Grant-eligible students was $14,670 in 2010-2011, which is high compared to other private colleges, according to a New America Foundation study released last year.
The University’s financial aid system also came under fire last fall after a Hatchet report disclosed that GW has decided whether to waitlist hundreds of students based on their ability to afford tuition.
Knapp said in a release last week that students from poor families often don’t apply to schools like GW because they have “sticker shock” from the prices – even if plenty of scholarships are available to cover costs. Top colleges like GW typically fail to attract high-achieving, low-income students, according to a study last year by researchers at Stanford and Harvard universities.
That was almost true for freshman Damonta Morgan, whose high school in Mississippi had no college counselors for any of its 1,000 students. He didn’t think about going to college until he changed schools.
As a junior, he transferred to a math- and science-focused boarding school three hours away. For the first time, the kids in his classes were looking beyond a high school diploma.
“It wasn’t even debatable. You were going to college,” he said.
Now, Morgan is in his first year studying political science at GW, paying next to nothing for an education worth $60,000 a year. If he hadn’t transferred high schools, Morgan said he likely wouldn’t be on campus today.
Obama, Knapp administrations tackle college costs
University spokeswoman Candace Smith said administrators are still working out the details of last week’s affordability commitments.
At the White House, the auditorium was packed with college presidents from across the country eager to hear President Obama and the first lady speak.
“The challenge is to take all the best practices that you hear about and the many different examples that people are doing and figure out how to focus it and get some measurable results out of it,” Knapp said in an interview Thursday.
GW’s commitments are part of a sweeping campaign by the Obama administration to close the gap in college degrees between the country’s richest and the poorest families.
The Obama administration has taken several steps before to work on college affordability, releasing a financial aid shopping sheet last year to help students rank schools side by side. He also promised the U.S. would reclaim its spot as the country with the most college graduates by 2020.
“The premise that we’re all created equal is the opening line in our American story but we don’t promise equal outcomes. We strive to deliver equal opportunity. Success should not depend on being born into wealthy privilege. It depends on effort and merit,” Obama said Thursday.