George Washington University’s ‘Rich Kid’ Reputation

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George Washington University, the college with official tuition rate of $43,747 a year, is apparently now trying to combat its status as a college for rich people. Only problem? All of its rich people.

According to an article in the Washington Post:

Whether it’s deserved or not, fair or not, GW seems stuck with a “Great Gatsby” reputation. In the New York Times recently, the Foggy Bottom school of 25,000 was dismissed by a former student as a “giant party school with a bunch of rich kids.”

Although the swipe was made by a party photographer who attended temporarily,it could not have been welcome attention for GW’s administration, during a year when the school is struggling with fallout from a rankings scandal and the administration has launched a high-profile campaign to get its own message out.

“Deserved or not” is a little vague, however. Technically the “party school for rich kids” label can be used to describe most private (and many public many public) colleges. That’s just how it works. High school kids visit a campus, see a bunch of students wearing nice clothes, visit a frat party or two, and conclude it’s all shallow people having fun with their parents’ money. It’s pretty difficult to get a sense of hard work and scholarship, even if it’s pretty standard, from a 16-hour Friday campus visit.

But part of the problem is that GW kind of is a rich kid school. As I explained a few years ago, in the 90s GW made a deliberate effort to increase prestige in large part by increasing tuition and enrolling more affluent students. It more or less worked but in the process GW basically destroyed all pretense that the school was affordable and practical. When you hike tuition to build fancy dorms to appeal to students who didn’t get in to the country’s most prestigious schools, well, what conclusion are observers going to draw?

According to the Post article, however, it looks like most of the efforts to combat the spoiled students reputation have to do with improving the school’s academic reputation and research capabilities, not increasing the number of actual poor people attending the college.

The school’s president, Steven Knapp, talked to the Post author about increasingly liberal arts requirements, a new $275 million science and engineering building, and “a high-profile rebranding campaign… and a 10-year vision plan that could cost more than $110 million.”

These are precisely the strategies universities use to grow and improve their reputations. Meanwhile, however:

About 55 percent of GW students receive need-based aid, but its tuition is so high experts say that’s not the best barometer of a student body’s economic diversity — as many middle- and even upper-middle-class students get institutional aid. A better marker is the percentage of students receiving federally funded Pell grants. That number is 14 percent, less than half the national average but on par with nearby institutions such as Georgetown and American universities.

So GW’s prestige may continue to improve, but at least for now the university is stuck with its rich kid reputation. And that’s because, well, the reputation is more or less accurate. [Image via]

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer