Staff Editorial: GW needs real affordability goals

University President Steven Knapp enjoyed facetime with higher education leaders and President Barack Obama about a week ago at the White House to brainstorm ways to make college more affordable. But if Knapp really wants to make a GW degree attainable for low-income students and their families, schmoozing with Obama won’t cut it.

The University committed to a series of small projects, like putting on workshops about the college application process for low-income local students. But compared to other private colleges at the White House event, GW offered little substance or specifics. It was just press-release progress.

When GW makes a true commitment to something, administrators back up promises with hard goals and numbers.

For example, the decade-long strategic plan outlines specific increases for the number of international undergraduates on campus to 15 percent of the student body. International students by and large pay nearly the full sticker price and don’t rely on federal aid, helping the University’s bottom line.

To hire better teachers and innovators, the University has set its sights on hiring 50 to 100 research faculty. Undergraduate research is Knapp’s focus, so 10 new research centers will get off the ground.

But the University won’t commit to the same kind of clear benchmarks when it comes to increasing the number of Pell Grant-eligible students. Administrators have not attached hard goals to lowering the average price that students pay tuition after financial aid. Instead, we’re left with vague promises and few specifics. It’s time for GW to get serious.

To be fair, the University has made some strides. The ratio of Pell Grant-eligible students has risen from 9 percent to 14 percent. The total financial aid pool has swelled since the financial crisis, with more money going toward need-based aid. Adding scholarships is also a top priority for fundraisers.

But GW won’t be able to reel in top recruits if it doesn’t find a way to alleviate the pains of a daunting sticker price, as Knapp has admitted. Pell Grant-eligible students paid $14,670 a year after grants and financial aid in 2010-2011, making low-income GW students pay more than peers at other private colleges, according to a 2013 New America Foundation study.

Other top-tier schools have already taken substantive action to mitigate the effects of high tuition.

Northwestern University in Chicago, for example, plans to enroll at least 100 students from local public high schools. Franklin & Marshall College pledged to expand its financial aid budget by 10 percent next year.

To make GW more attractive to local, low-income students, administrators don’t have to start from scratch. In fact, it has a series of affordability programs already in place. Take, for example, the SJT Scholarships, awarded to 10 students from D.C. high schools.

This program was instituted over a decade ago. Over the next few years, GW should offer more of these scholarships, with a specific eye on adding students from its own backyard. We shouldn’t be content to settle for one-tenth of what competitor school Northwestern has pledged.

But GW shouldn’t stop there.

The GW School of Nursing, located on the Virginia Science and Technology Campus, makes it easier for community college students in Virginia to transfer credits, cut costs and graduate in four years. Why not expand this program – extending college affordability not only to community college students in Virginia, but at community colleges in low-income areas of Maryland and the District?

Former University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, now a higher education consultant, argued that the burden lies with the federal government to boost funding for the national Pell Grant program. Otherwise, making college affordable is an uphill battle.

But we shouldn’t let GW off the hook. Administrators still have questions to answer.

How many Pell Grant-eligible students should the University enroll in the next five years? How much should they be paying for their degrees? If the University wants to think big on college affordability, it needs to hold itself accountable. We’ve learned about almost every other goal GW has for the next 10 years.

Where are the University’s affordability plans?

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