Op-ed: Full need financial aid: a forward-looking proposal for GW

Harald Griesshammer is an associate professor of physics. He is on sabbatical in academic year 2019-20. Guillermo Orti is the Louis Weintraub professor of biology and a member of the Faculty Senate. Sarah Wagner is an associate professor of anthropology and a member of the Faculty Senate. Bernard Wood is the University professor of human origins.

Last year, University President Thomas LeBlanc proposed a 20 percent reduction in GW’s undergraduate population over the next five years. In response, this February, the Faculty Senate asked the administration to refrain from implementing such plans until the financial implications are clear and do demonstrably not diminish academic quality and diversity. Last week, the first Special Faculty Assembly in living memory unanimously supported the senate’s actions.

If the proposal were fully implemented, it would result in an annual budget cut of $80 million, according to LeBlanc. By the administration’s own scenarios, that number already includes tuition increases and will likely both reduce student diversity and increase reliance on affluent students. This annual $80 million hole does not include a single dollar for renovations and no investments in teaching, research or the student experience. The 20 percent enrollment cut solves nothing but creates many problems, as Hatchet opinion pieces continue to elucidate.

Is there a better way forward for GW than such a self-inflicted wound? We found an answer in the interim report of one of the committees charged to provide input into GW’s new strategic plan, the committee on high-quality undergraduate education. It supports meeting “100 percent of financial need for admitted students.” We argue that this proposal aligns with GW’s values and ensures GW’s fiscal health for the next decade and beyond.

What does meeting full need mean? Most GW students do not pay the full price of tuition, but GW covers only about 85 percent of what a student’s FAFSA filing and CSS profile determine as need. So if federal forms find you deserve a $10,000 tuition discount, GW usually only grants $8,500. It assumes that families have additional assets – like the proverbial stash of bills under granny’s pillow – to cover the difference. As discussed below, GW’s 85 percent is low compared to its peers, most of which meet 100 percent.

Meeting only 85 percent of financial need disproportionately hurts low-income families and students from non-academic backgrounds. Many of our students need to work part-time to be able to afford GW, which takes time and energy away from their studies. While no less driven and academically excellent than their more affluent peers, they are at a significant disadvantage. Their grades suffer, some face food insecurity, and if this means they take longer to graduate, they pay an even higher price.

We, therefore, propose that GW meets 100 percent of the demonstrated financial need of its students. Meeting full demonstrated need is already part of the national discussion. Even middle-class families are incurring crushing debt when they send their children to college. Of our competitors, BostonNortheastern, Tufts and the universities of Wake Forest and Southern California now “meet full need,” as does our strongest local competitor, Georgetown University. The University of Rochester, where LeBlanc was dean, meets full need. Starting this fall, the University of Miami, where he was provost, will meet full need for all Florida residents. That makes eight of the 12 schools in our market basket.

We are witnessing a seismic shift of the landscape of higher education. We can decide to ignore it and be priced out of the market, forcing us to rely on an increasingly more affluent and less diverse student body. We will then discourage our best prospective students to attend GW until, in a few years, circumstances will eventually force us to change course.

Or we can be at the forefront of change and offer full demonstrated need now.

This would provide GW with the opportunity to tap into the enthusiasm, talent and curiosity of a segment of the population that thus far has been under-represented in higher education. Because of the undisputed strong correlation of parental income, test scores and ethnicity, implementing this plan will make GW more diverse and more inclusive. We will ride the demographic trend, as the region from which GW recruits most of its students, like all of the United States, becomes more diverse. Combining this with GW’s unique location and the arrival of Amazon’s headquarters, it would help GW achieve “pre-eminence as a comprehensive, global research university.”

Despite the flawed assumptions of the strategic plan, hard work by dedicated faculty has produced many excellent ideas. By removing the shackles of the 20 percent cut, GW can more freely articulate what it stands for: inspiring curiosity, challenging beliefs and striving for excellence as well as diversity of thought. This is a value proposition students can and will identify with.

How much would meeting 100 percent of need cost? LeBlanc provided an answer at the Faculty Assembly in October 2018: $30 million per year. This investment in GW’s future is actually not that difficult to achieve. According to LeBlanc, the just-enacted elimination of fixed tuition, which saves $15 million each year, would provide half of the cost. Other reasonable savings could help cover the remaining $15 million gap. But what is more, implementing this policy will inspire philanthropic donors to help students and could be a number-one fundraising priority. Filling the gap is thus within reach, and meeting 100 percent of need would respond to the complaint that GW’s institutional culture is “transactional, cold and impersonal.” It would show that GW does care. It is a case GW can rally around.

The administration’s proposed 20 percent cut to enrollment costs nearly three times as much, is not supported by data, has no intrinsic value, and risks reducing, not increasing diversity at GW.

In short, a proposal for GW to meet full need is fiscally responsible, has an immediate positive impact on the student experience, uses a national demographic trend to our advantage, is good politics as well as good policy and enshrines values GW can be proud of. It deserves careful consideration by the administration, the senate budget committee, and most importantly, by the Board of Trustees, which carries the heavy burden of fiduciary responsibility for GW’s future.

We, therefore, opened a petition to the board to move GW to support full demonstrated financial need and encourage all students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends of GW to sign it.

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