Walk through Colonial Crossroads on the Marvin Center’s fifth floor and you’ll pass dozens of cubicles belonging to the staff of GW’s residential life office, career center and community service programs.
Across the street in Rice Hall, you’ll see a half-dozen offices for the dean of students staff, and a few blocks over, you’ll find a two-story multicultural center, a freshly updated international student office and a pristine gym. Soon, brand-new health and counseling centers will move to H Street after a multimillion dollar renovation.
It’s easy to notice GW’s big spending on student programming and services, though administrators have remained tight-lipped about most costs. But recent data from the Department of Education reveals a glimpse of GW’s overall spending on student life, which increased about 40 percent between 2006 and 2012.
The University spent about $4,200 per student on services that included 4-Ride, Lerner Health and Wellness and Student Health Service in 2012, the latest data available.
That’s about $900 more than the average per-student spending at GW’s 14 peer universities. It’s the only category for which GW outspent those institutions, which include Northwestern, New York and Vanderbilt universities.
GW’s spending on other areas like instruction, research and academic support have also seen double-digit increases over the last six years, but competitor schools still put much more money into those areas. For example, while GW spends $18,577 per student on instruction, its peers averaged $28,488 per student.
Dean of Student Affairs Peter Konwerski said the University has invested heavily to enrich students’ campus experiences, which is now an expectation for nearly all prospective students. He said the biggest cost is staff pay, which has become crucial to give students more personal attention and employ people experienced in higher education.
“Students and parents are consumers and they’re looking at the best value of their education,” Konwerski said. “We want to have a really compelling opportunity for students to come find their place, get support, be successful.”
Provost Steven Lerman said part of the reason that GW spends more per student is because of the steep property and amenity costs in D.C. He added that GW’s relatively small endowment of about $1.3 billion – which translates to about $54,000 per student – forces it to rein in spending in other areas.
That endowment-per-student figure is lower than dozens of other colleges in the D.C., Maryland and Virginia area, however, including the University of Richmond and Georgetown University.
“It reflects the priorities we’ve established, to have a high quality of student support services. We’ve made investments in improving mental health services and increasing recreation,” he said.
A tradition that focuses on student life
The origins of GW’s spending choices can be traced back over the last few decades, when GW built its reputation for spending big on students.
Last decade, the University expanded amenities and added flash to the student life experiences. Freshmen had maid service in dorms, Colonial Inauguration included laser light shows, double-decker admissions tour buses rolled around campus and students could play cheap games of bowling in the Marvin Center.
Those features are now pieces of a former era, but GW has channeled student services spending into career, safety and health services, as well as more staff. The University has also committed recently to spending more on intramural and club sports.
Robert Chernak, who served as the senior vice president for Student and Academic Support Services before retiring in 2012, said top administrators would rarely turn down a chance to improve student life on campus.
“[University President Steven] Knapp and Lerman were always very supportive of budget priorities in student life. I never found either one lacking in their enthusiasm when a proper case was presented,” Chernak said.
The engine of GW’s student services is the Center for Student Engagement, where the University’s house staff workers make between $3,000 and $4,750 per year in addition to free housing for their work.
Recently, the University committed to increasing the career center’s budget by $20 million over the next decade, funding about a dozen hires and sweeping programs dedicated to help students prepare to find jobs. Officials have also made a large commitment to international student services.
Over the past two years, GW has increased the University Counseling Center’s budget by almost $200,000 as demand has skyrocketed. Officials have also replaced pricey cardio and weight lifting equipment at the HelWell.
The University is constantly eyeing new programs that could attract more students or improve the experiences of current students, in line with its mantra of “students come first,” Konwerski said.
“We ask all the time, ‘What do we need to do more of?’ ‘What do we need to do better?’” Konwerski said. “If you look back 15 years, we didn’t have as many beds, we didn’t have as many facilities, we didn’t have as many amenities. We’ve really built that to build a community.”
Stacking up against competitor schools
Researchers and higher education experts have intensified scrutiny over how colleges spend money, especially those that are tuition-driven, like GW.
Investing in student services and support systems can decrease the likelihood that students drop out, but that strategy has worked mostly at schools with lagging graduation rates and selectivity, according to a 2009 study by Cornell University researchers.
The head of campus activities at American University, Michael Elmore, said his department operates on an annual budget of about $600,000 to support student organizations and create programs and events. That school’s total spending is about $3,365 per student.
Competitor schools like Duke University, one of the top research colleges in the country, have instead funneled more money into academics and research.
Duke spends about $1,000 less per student on student services than GW. Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students Sue Wasiolek said potential students aren’t looking at services and amenities when they visit.
Duke’s academic spending rocketed by about 500 percent since 2006, while its student services spending increased about 20 percent, according to the data. Wasiolek said the school doesn’t neglect campus life funding at the expense of research or faculty funding, but said that the school has “a very holistic approach” that combines the two.
– Brianna Gurciullo contributed reporting.