Justin Peligri: Yes, you should give money to GW

If there’s one headline the University doesn’t want alumni to read, it’s this one: “Don’t give money to fancy colleges.”

That’s what Slate’s business and economics correspondent Matt Yglesias argued last week, writing that elite, selective colleges don’t deserve donations because they are “mechanisms for the perpetuation of inequality and hierarchy.”

Media Credit: Hatchet File Photo
Justin Peligri

He’s not entirely wrong in his premise: Most selective colleges, including GW, do a poor job of fulfilling their prerogative to bring in students from all socioeconomic backgrounds to increase diversity in classrooms.

That’s been well-documented, and administrators have said they need to do more. But they need money first. Yes, even GW needs a lot more money to fulfill this mission.

If people follow through with the suggestion that we should stop donating to schools because of diversity problems, they will only make the problem worse.

Harvard and Stanford universities might be rich without donations. They might do okay without some famous alumni dying and giving all their money away. Right now, at least, GW certainly can’t say the same.

Yes, GW has a $1.3 billion endowment. That sounds like a large number. But when alumni get calls to donate, they may not realize that the University only has $54,433 in its endowment per student. That’s less than Gallaudet University, University of Richmond, Georgetown University and about 20 other colleges in the D.C. area.

Without donations, fewer students will be able to take advantage of a GW education because financial aid pools will inevitably shrink.

Why is this important? Administrators may be concerned about the University’s 80 percent six-year graduation rate – but that number is still pretty good. And students who came from poor families actually did even better, with about 81 percent of students who entered in 2004 with Pell Grants or federal loans graduating in six years.

If a kid from a low-income family gets a GW education at no or little charge, they’re probably better off here than at a university without the resources to get students through college.

Donations free up money for scholarships, making an undergraduate degree at GW possible for so many students who would otherwise be trapped at local community colleges or state schools that have poor graduation track records.

Nationally, about half of undergraduates earn a degree after six years. Only 7.7 percent of University of the District of Columbia students graduate in six years. University of Maryland-Baltimore County graduates 57 percent of students in that time frame.

Going to GW significantly improves students’ chances of actually earning a degree – but with donations, it can do a lot better.

Pell Grant-eligible students paid an average total of $14,670 in 2010-2011 – that’s more than peers at other private colleges, according to a 2013 study from the New America Foundation. Donations to scholarships can help drive that number down.

The ratio of Pell Grant-eligible students has increased from 9 to 14 percent over the last five years – still too low a number, but reassuring progress that GW is keeping an eye out for bringing in students from poorer backgrounds.

And, of course, students still graduate from GW with about $33,000 of debt on average. That is one of the University’s biggest burdens – and is something that administrators will struggle to justify as the cost of college continues to skyrocket disproportionately to salaries in many fields.

Large donations could be a potential remedy. Racking up the big bucks will help the University to continue to spend money on boosting the prestige of a GW degree.

Granted, skeptics are right that more money on tap likely means that a few more vice presidents will be hired, contributing to our frustrating administrative bloat.

But it also spells more scholarships. That’s something we should all rally behind. We can only reasonably expect the socioeconomic divide in our schools to decrease if these institutions have enough money on hand to make it happen.

The writer, a junior majoring in political communication, is The Hatchet’s opinions editor.

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