College tuition has been on the rise nationwide for the past several decades, skyrocketing higher than both inflation and median household incomes. Many students graduate with substantial debt burdens, with collective student debt now over $1 trillion. At GW, former university President Stephen Trachtenberg increased tuition from $25,000 to $51,000 during his 19 years as president, leaving GW while it was the most expensive university in the country. Trachtenberg accomplished this primarily by spending more money to make the school seem like it had a higher value. "People equate price with the value of their education," he said in an interview with The Atlantic comparing it to a company that sells cheap vodka upgrading the packaging in order to charge a higher price.
Despite some optimistic signs of increased focus on providing financial aid, this trend of higher tuition and higher university spending hasn't stopped (see Infographic). The University has not ceased from increasing tuition and room and board costs by about 3% per year. Recent large investments in dorm construction, including the $130 million superdorm, and revelations about the $600,000 price tag for the logo change, show that continued increases in costs of attendance increase right alongside the money the school spends on revamping its image.
However, on face value, increased tuition does have an upside: new revenue from full-paying students can, in theory, subsidize increased financial aid. Despite well intentions, the problem with charging high tuition costs for some to increase the financial aid packages of others is that it becomes an unsustainable model. After it was discovered to have misrepresented its need aware policies, the school released a press release, writing “Our need-aware admissions policy enables the university to provide more attractive aid packages for students with financial need while staying within our aid budget.” The underlying problem is that GW isn’t investing enough money to provide financial aid to more students. The fund for undergraduate aid actually decreased last year by $1.9 million, despite the more than 10% increase in request for assistance by students. Providing more aid is difficult for the University in part because only 11.24% of its relatively-low endowment is available for aid purposes.
More importantly, though, financial aid can’t keep up with continued increases in tuition. As college sticker prices rise, it becomes even more challenging for the institution to find ways to make up the difference. Because of this gap in funds, GW is forced to be need-aware and to take a student’s ability to pay into account when deciding whether to admit or wait list them.
What then should be done? Aside from increasing our endowment through new alumni giving campaigns, GW could decrease non-academic spending. University finances do not operate in a vacuum; conscious decisions are made on what priorities are funded. The Innovation Task Force, a program that solicits input from the GW community on ways for the school to increase revenue and cut costs, has attempted to find new ways to save money. However, recent reports show the process has slowed and will not likely meet its target.
While it may mean making difficult and controversial decisions, GW needs to make curbing non-academic spending a priority. We can never become a need-blind university until we accept that spending increases propelled by raising tuition costs are making our education less accessible to those who need it.