In the summer of 1961, a twenty-two-year-old college graduate from rural Nevada packed up his young family and moved to Washington, D.C. He took a job working nights as a U.S. Capitol policeman while by day he studied for a law degree in Foggy Bottom, at a local commuter school by the name of George Washington University.
Foggy Bottom in those days was an unfashionable neighborhood of State Department office buildings, apartment blocks, decrepit townhouses, bodegas, and parking lots. GW’s campus was an unlovely spread of mostly concrete structures frequented by students who sat for classes and then returned to their lives and apartments off-campus. They came because the school offered an education that was convenient, affordable, and thoroughly adequate to the needs of, say, a Department of Agriculture employee looking to secure a pay raise with a new degree, or a Maryland housewife going back to college once her kids were out of the house.
Because Washington has always been a city full of busy people anxious to advance but tied to their jobs, the school saw a number of up-and-coming D.C. notables pass quietly through its doors. Colin Powell got his MBA there while serving as a White House fellow; J. Edgar Hoover studied law while working at the Library of Congress; and Jacqueline Bouvier (later Mrs. John F. Kennedy) finished her bachelor’s in French literature there, four miles away from her mother’s house in McLean, while taking photographs for the Washington Times-Herald.
The school, in other words, was no Georgetown—GW’s highbrow neighbor up the Potomac—but it filled a valuable niche and helped advance the careers of some prominent public servants. That young Nevadan police officer’s time at GW, for instance, paid off pretty well in the long run. Just four years after he finished his degree and returned home to serve as a city attorney, he was elected to the Nevada state assembly. Eighteen years later Nevada elected him to the U.S. Senate; twenty years after that, he became the body’s majority leader. His name is Harry Reid.
If Reid were starting his career today, however, he probably couldn’t afford a GW law degree on a policeman’s salary. Today George Washington, like many “up-and-coming” second-tier schools—American University, New York University—is ruinously expensive. After decades of offering a low-cost education, GW took a sharp turn upmarket in the late 1980s under the presidency of Stephen Joel Trachtenberg. The university went on a high-class building spree, financed by a dizzying series of tuition increases. When Trachtenberg took office, undergraduate tuition was $14,000—below average for a private, four-year college. By the time he left in 2007, it had mushroomed to $39,000 a year (or, including fees and room and board, a whopping $50,000)—making GW the most expensive school in the United States.
What Trachtenberg understood was that perception is reality in higher education—and perception can be bought. “You can get a Timex or a Casio for $65 or you can get a Rolex or a Patek Philippe for $10,000. It’s the same thing,” Trachtenberg says. The former president gambled that students who couldn’t quite get into the nation’s most exclusive colleges—and who would otherwise overlook a workmanlike school like the old GW—would flock to a university that at least had a price tag and a swank campus like those of the Ivy Leagues. “It serves as a trophy, a symbol,” he says. “It’s a sort of token of who they think they are.”
What’s amazing is that this strategy worked. During Trachtenberg’s tenure, applications for undergraduate admission increased from 6,000 to 20,000 a year, GW students’ average SAT scores increased by 200 points, the endowment increased to almost $1 billion—still quite low for GW’s size, but higher than the $200 million nest egg Trachtenberg inherited—and the university created five new schools.
Welcome to today’s increasingly elite higher education system, where lavish campuses, high tuition, and huge undergraduate debt loads have become the norm. In dogged competition for affluent, high-scoring students, today’s second-tier colleges aim to achieve higher prestige by aping the superficial characteristics of America’s traditionally elite schools. Indeed, there are few alternatives for ambitious administrators. “If you want to rise, you try to do the things that make you look like Harvard,” says David Labaree, a professor of education at Stanford University. “It’s hard to take a different path.”
To be sure, there was more to GW’s transformation than just a tuition hike and a campus makeover. The administration also engaged in an aggressive marketing campaign, smartly selling GW’s location in the heart of the nation’s capital as a precious asset. (A full-page advertisement in Foreign Affairs features a map of downtown Washington with GW highlighted. Also lit up are the IMF, the World Bank, the White House, the Treasury Department, the Federal Reserve Bank, the State Department, and the Kennedy Center. “Welcome to the neighborhood,” it says.)
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