Staff Editorial: The future of GW

This is the first in a two-part staff editorial series about the future of GW.

It’s a key interview question: Where do you see yourself in 20 years? Rather than ask ourselves that question, we decided to explore what GW will look like long after we’ve graduated. We talked to experts, researched higher education trends and compared peer schools. Of course, nobody can predict the future, but we gave it a shot. First, we’re examining areas that have seen important changes over the past few years: admissions, branding, housing and student services.

A more diverse pool of applicants
Twenty years from now, the newly admitted Class of 2020 will have already left their mark at GW. When they applied last fall, they were the first applicants that didn’t have to send in their SAT or ACT scores. And over the next 20 years, they won’t be the last.

When GW went test-optional last summer, experts questioned whether this was the right way to bring in more minority and low-income students – something we expect GW will continue to prioritize. In fact, some said that by becoming test-optional, GW would simply be able to bring in more applicants and lower their acceptance rate. It worked.

This year, GW accepted 39.5 percent of applicants – the lowest acceptance rate in two years. Scott Jaschik, editor of Inside Higher Education, said more and more schools are going test-optional. It’s a trend that we can predict will continue.

But staying test-optional isn’t the only admissions prediction we can make. As GW continues to try and diversify its student population, we should also consider the University’s pledge to double the number of international students on campus by 2022.

Between 2006 and 2014 the University’s international population more than doubled, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education. And Karin Fischer, a senior reporter at The Chronicle, said that GW’s goal seems feasible. In fact, 20 years from now, GW will likely exceed that goal.

Fischer also believes that international students are important for universities to recruit because many can afford to pay full tuition, and they also can bring the racial diversity that schools like GW are looking for. Because GW relies on tuition for 75 percent of its revenue, growing its international student population will continue to be important.

“Not all international students are created equal, and some are more financially conscious than others,” Fischer said. “Then there are some students in a place like China that have families that have been saving for the child’s entire lifetime so that these children can go to college. They’ve already accepted how expensive it’s going to be.”

But Fischer said that because so many of the international students in the U.S. are from China, adding more international students does not necessarily mean a school is more diverse than before. Furthermore, GW admitted roughly the same percentage of international students in the Class of 2020 as they did for the Class of 2019.

Two decades from now, admissions at GW will probably be more diverse, but it likely won’t be because of its test-optional policy. Instead, it will stem from an increase in international students – a strategic move on the University’s part.

Focusing on international branding
We all know that GW’s branding is hyper-focused on its location. For years, campus has been covered in posters that read, “Here, a stroke of genius can become a stroke of the president’s pen,” or, “Whether on campus or in the White House, four years can change the course of history.” Alumnus and former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s face greets students in the Marvin Center stairwell, and the University’s Instagram is filled with photos of the National Mall.

If you think about it, that all makes sense. The edge that GW has over its peer schools is its location – right in the heart of D.C. It’s smart to play up GW’s relationship with D.C. politics, and it’s likely something the University will continue to do.

But over the next 20 years, something will have to change if GW wants to maintain its cutting-edge marketing machine. Universities tend to brand themselves either as specialty brands or regional brands, college branding expert Roger Dooley wrote in a 2013 Forbes article. However, since more families are increasingly concerned about affordability and the declining benefits of receiving an education, the college branding market is due for change, Dooley wrote.

Since GW has already refined its specialty brand – as a school in the nation’s capital with many opportunities for internships – it will have to continue to find creative ways to market itself. Given its focus on attracting international students, it’s reasonable to believe that in two decades, the University will market itself to the world as an international melting pot in the political heart of the United States. Rather than talking about students who want to be press secretary, maybe they’ll talk about students being heads of state.

Not only would a campaign like this attract diverse students, but it will specialize GW’s brand even further. It allows the school’s marketing to stay focused on the city, its main strength, while building its reputation as an academic hub for students all over the world. It also ties into goals GW has already put into motion this year – centering its entire international strategy around opportunities and organizations in D.C.

We can also assume that GW’s future marketing campaigns will be based on social media outreach – and probably on platforms that have yet to be invented. GW has been on the cusp of social media marketing over the last few years, even winning an Emmy for its efforts last summer. That’s an area of focus GW will definitely want to grow and use to its full advantage when appealing to high school students.

And yes – we’re guessing that even in 2035, #OnlyatGW will still be around.

Student services that look good
Many aspects of life at GW fall under the umbrella of student services – everything from what exercise classes are offered at the Lerner Health and Wellness Center to how quickly FixIT responds to a problem. Since these areas impact students the most in their daily lives and could impress prospective students, it makes sense for GW to continue making these surface-level improvements in order to compete.

For example, arguably one of the most important parts of any campus tour is a stop at the library. Within the next two decades, we predict (and hope) that Gelman Library will get a much-needed facelift. And when it does, we think it will have fewer floors stuffed with hardbound books, and more modern, sleeker places to study: Imagine the renovated first floor repeated six more times. And hard as it may be to believe, perhaps there won’t even be space for stacks in a Gelman of the future, since most students will be using eBooks and digitized texts anyway.

Smaller changes – like adding Wi-Fi to the Vern Express, constantly upgrading equipment in the gym and giving students more attractive spaces to hang out – are even more likely. But we all know that student life goes far beyond technology and a pretty campus. In order to create a community that stands up to the competition presented by other universities, future administrators will have to think more like students.

It’s possible that 20 years from now, more GW officials will be communicating on social media with students – like Dean of Student Affairs Peter Konwerski does now. And even more services, like career coaching or peer counseling services, may be automated on platforms that don’t even exist yet.

Since the University is tuition reliant – and probably will be for many years to come – it has to stay focused on what will attract high school seniors. As many of us know, flashy upgrades and cool perks will probably do the trick, even 20 years from now.

Keeping up with housing competition
It’s a complicated time for housing at GW. Campus is cramped, a new residence hall is set to open and many rising juniors are unhappy that they’re being forced to live on campus next year. Sadly, a lot of these issues may still exist in 20 years.

Meanwhile, other schools are doing everything they can to attract students with innovative housing options. Some schools are building entire residential neighborhoods for students in an attempt to create more cohesive communities. Others are focused on emphasizing living-learning communities and affinity housing.

“GW will always be unique in its setting,” said Allan Blattner, president of the Association of College and University Housing Officers – International. “There’s not a lot of land around there just sitting waiting for people to build on. Your university will be forced with decisions.”

It’s probably impossible for GW to build brand new residence halls once District House opens, mostly because it doesn’t have the space. Over the next 20 years, we can probably expect some major renovations to certain residence halls – but nothing new will likely be popping up on campus because the University is restricted by its campus plan.

Instead, GW will have to find other ways to compete. In the future, schools will probably have to consider adding more places within residence halls meant for online learning, and how to keep up with the demand for Wi-Fi, Blattner said.

What’s most likely is that the University will build on its existing structures for affinity housing options, like those that will be available in District House. At the University of Iowa, for example, freshmen choose from more than 30 unique living-learning communities, meant to encourage their involvement on campus and increase their likelihood of staying enrolled.

If GW is to focus on living-learning communities, it won’t be thinking about building apartments, Blattner said. Instead, it will have to focus on “more community living space” that will encourage interaction between students, he said.

We know officials are committed to boosting GW’s retention rate, and an expanded system of living-learning communities would be particularly beneficial for students, many of whom often complain that campus lacks a community. Giving students smaller communities of their own might make many feel more at home, and when paired with attractive residence hall options, could keep GW on track with other schools.

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 design editor Samantha LaFrance, copy editor Brandon Lee and managing director Eva Palmer.

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