Staff Editorial: Right now, affordability isn’t a reasonable goal for GW

“Affordability” is a buzzword in higher education. Over the past few years, schools across the country have pledged to make their degrees more affordable. Presidential candidates have promised to make public universities less expensive. Students talk about affordability on social media, and compare the debt they expect to incur after graduation.

Of course, GW hasn’t been left out of the conversation. Two years ago this month, University President Steven Knapp tasked a group of staff and administrators with making GW more accessible for low-income students. The task force met for about a year, interim Provost Forrest Maltzman said in an email.

During that time, the task force encouraged the University to adopt a test-optional admission policy, announced a program that will give full-tuition scholarships to 10 low-income students and created a grant scholarship for D.C. students. Officials also recently “expanded” a division of the admissions office to focus on ensuring that students who come to GW succeed here, Maltzman said.

But unfortunately, GW is no more affordable than it was two years ago, and the task force hasn’t done much to change that. The financial aid pool has continued to grow, but GW is still an expensive option for most students who go here and families who consider it. That may be because at the moment, there isn’t much the University can do to make itself more affordable – and it shouldn’t even try.

Analyzing the work of the affordability task force, and GW’s overall affordability efforts, seems especially important considering GW’s most recent surprise announcement: Dean of Admissions Karen Stroud Felton will resign at the end of the semester. Felton was a member of a group of officials focused on making GW more accessible, and has been one of the administrators setting GW’s admissions-related policies for the last five years.

As students, we understand that it’s frustrating and disheartening to attend such an expensive school in an expensive area. While some University officials earn high salaries and continue to raise tuition, it feels like we’re being ignored – like the debt many students are in now and will be in in the future are unimportant. That frustration leads to angry Facebook statuses and tweets about how much we’re paying and what appears to be the University’s unwillingness to make GW more affordable.

But it isn’t necessarily the case that GW is simply unwilling to lower tuition: In fact, the University cannot lower tuition right now, and negative financial consequences would unfold if it did. GW relies on tuition to make up 75 percent of its revenue. That means lowering the amount students pay is impossible because GW needs that money to even exist. Rather, tuition increases are probably more likely, especially since tuition has increased for incoming students by about 3 percent every year for the last eight years.

We’ve seen the impact of lower-than-projected revenues play out already: After an enrollment decline in graduate and professional programs meant officials missed their budget projections last fiscal year, GW cut 5 percent from administrative divisions last year and accepted 45 percent of this fall’s freshman class to help increase revenue.

Right now, affordability is out of GW’s hands. Knapp announced yet another round of budget cuts in December that will require all divisions within the central administration – that includes admissions, fundraising and Title IX – to trim 3 to 5 percent from their budgets each year for the next five fiscal years.

Even though Knapp said these new cuts will only affect administrative units, it doesn’t mean that academic programs and departments are safe from harm: We’ve already seen cutbacks in some of those areas. The only way for GW to avoid cutting departments and programs students care about – like the music department and women’s studies and creative writing programs – is to dig itself out of its tuition-reliant hole.

As students, we need to accept this. It’s pointless to call on GW to do the impossible, or to complain that we’re paying too much without understanding the problem. Of course students have the right to be frustrated that meals are expensive, programs that are important to them are being trimmed down, or that it will take a long time to pay off their student loans. But right now, we have to let officials do what they need to in order to save the University in the future, and accept that making GW more affordable might not be on that agenda.

We, unfortunately, need to reconcile the fact that there isn’t one person we can blame for this. Back in the 1980s, tuition skyrocketed because GW grew – grew in campus size, student body, faculty – and perhaps too fast. Between 1988 and 2007, tuition nearly tripled, beginning at $14,000 and increasing to $39,000 according to Washington Monthly.

But we aren’t the only university dealing with these problems, which Knapp acknowledged when he announced the budget cuts in December. GW’s tuition – which crossed $50,000 last year – is already high, and family incomes are not growing at a fast enough rate. That means that even though officials want to see GW grow, they have to be cognizant of not maxing out their customers. This is a systemic national problem, not just a GW problem.

Unfortunately, sacrificing affordability likely also means sacrificing some socioeconomic and racial diversity at GW. We understand that diversity is a cornerstone of a well-rounded education and an essential part of student life. And of course it’s promising that GW would assemble a task force to make itself more affordable for lower-income and minority students. But keeping tuition revenue steady should be the University’s top priority – at least for right now.

Easing tuition costs or granting students more money won’t fix the University’s budget crisis. In fact, it will worsen it. So in the meantime, we just need to ride out the storm, rather than demanding affordability that may never come.

The editorial board is composed of Hatchet staff members and operates separately from the newsroom. This week’s piece was written by opinions editor Sarah Blugis and contributing opinions editor Melissa Holzberg, based on discussions with sports editor Nora Princiotti, design editor Samantha LaFrance, copy editor Brandon Lee, assistant sports editor Mark Eisenhauer and managing director Eva Palmer.

Want to respond to this piece? Submit a letter to the editor.

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.