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August 22, 2010 11:00 PM The Prestige Racket

By Daniel Luzer


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.)

GW also capitalized heavily on its roster of famous alumni. The school’s Web site is studded with black-and-white and color photos of the great and the good who have passed through GW’s doors. The university named a dormitory after Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, a public service award after Colin Powell, and even a science scholarship after J. Edgar Hoover. One wonders whether a Harry Reid Library might one day be in the works. But there’s an irony in borrowing the prestige of these Washington luminaries: they didn’t attend GW because the school was prestigious; they went because it was accessible. When it came time to pursue a degree, Harry Reid, Colin Powell, and even Jacqueline Bouvier bought a Timex, not a Rolex. But GW doesn’t sell Timexes anymore. Is the public better off?

George Washington didn’t found George Washington University. Initially called Columbian College, the school was founded in 1821 for “the education of Gospel Ministers.” But such a modest mission didn’t suit the grand designs of the school’s eighth president, Charles Needham. As part of an early bid to reinvent the school as a national powerhouse, Needham struck a deal with the George Washington Memorial Association: the association would erect a palatial $500,000 campus building in honor of the first U.S. president, and the aggressively expanding university would rename itself after the great man in return. But things went quickly awry. Neither the university nor the association were able to raise enough money for the proposed growth; building costs spiraled out of control; and the university was forced to sell off real estate. The vaunted memorial building never saw the light of day, and the university retrenched to a single building in Foggy Bottom, where it rededicated itself to operating within its means. The new name stuck, however—an artifact of the school’s early failure, and a reminder that institutional grand ambitions don’t always pay off.

In the 1960s, under the presidency of Lloyd Elliott, GW began slowly expanding again, recruiting higher-quality faculty and students, buying up more of Foggy Bottom, and focusing heavily on undergraduate education—the most lucrative component of any university. But Elliott was no Needham. The campus structures he built were utilitarian and cheap. And, more importantly, he “believed in a low-tuition model,” says Anthony Yezer, a professor of economics at GW since 1972.

Not so his successor. When Trachtenberg took the helm in 1988, he had a target in mind when he began raising the cost of attending GW: he wanted to match Georgetown’s price tag. “I saw the gap as an opportunity,” he says. The move was a rebranding effort and a development strategy wrapped into one. “If you equalize for program costs, all schools cost virtually the same amount to run,” he says. “I would use that new tuition money to fund expansion.”

With this new cash infusion, Trachtenberg bought virtually everything in Foggy Bottom, gradually transforming GW into the second-largest landowner and the largest private employer in the District of Columbia. GW either razed or made over Foggy Bottom’s poured concrete buildings, the family-owned convenience stores, the parking lots, and other staples of drab urban life. Today the neighborhood shines with contemporary architectural showpieces, each flying the banner—blue with yellow stripes—of George Washington University.

“You want to build a city on a hill,” says Trachtenberg, who retired from the presidency in 2007 and now serves as GW’s University Professor of Public Service. “Buying housing and building dorms—that creates a community and builds relationships between students and their university.”

For an institution like GW, erecting fancy new buildings also serves a more narrowly strategic purpose: it instantly signals prestige to prospective students and buys the school traction in the U.S. News & World Report college rankings.Lavish buildings don’t actually improve education, of course, but elite schools have them; ergo, lavish buildings are an essential ingredient for academic high status. Cornell University’s student union, for instance, is a gothic-style fortress built in 1924 at a cost of $1.6 million (about $20 million in 2009 money). It has working fireplaces, two restaurants, a coffee shop, a bank, slate floors, and its own library, movie theater, and art gallery.

Cornell’s student union didn’t cost the school a dime—the whole building was donated by the widow of a 1902 graduate—but GW spent $24 million of its own money on renovations to create the new Marvin Student Center in the early 2000s. The university didn’t need a new student union, arguably, but Trachtenberg thought it was important enough for the school to spend a lot of money to build it. Why? According to the conventional wisdom in student recruitment, statistics about job placement and department quality often seem impossibly remote to high school seniors. Instead they respond to soaring student unions, fitness centers worthy of the Olympics, and dormitories with a kitchen in every suite. GW aimed to oblige: the American Institute of Architects gave the Marvin Center its highest award, the Excellence in Architecture prize, in 2003. (The strategy behind the new center may have been even more pointed: at the time, schools were desperate for ways to increase the percentage of admitted students who enrolled, because that’s something U.S. News measured. The magazine stopped doing so in 2003, though there is talk of reintroducing that metric.)

Buildings are not the only strategic things GW spends money on. For similarly shrewd reasons, in 2002 GW decided that it needed a varsity squash team. The only other colleges in the country with varsity squash programs for both men and women are Brown, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Penn, Princeton, and Yale. A GW athletic director explained to the Washington Post that the whole point of the GW squash program was to attract students who wanted to attend an Ivy League college and couldn’t get in.

To an extent, those gambits to snag elite students and higher rankings have paid off. Today GW, once a nonentity in national rankings, is rated the fifty-third-best university in America by U.S. News—sitting just outside the magazine’s “tier one,” the exclusive club of great American schools.

That rise in status came at a price, however—one clearly reflected in the school’s tuition rate. As a result, GW attracts a very different kind of student now. Gone, for the most part, are the moonlighting police officers and legislative assistants studying business administration by night. They have been replaced by well-heeled nineteen-year-olds from New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Long Island: traditional college students, kids from out of state with good SAT scores and vague dreams of some sort of job in public life, maybe on Capitol Hill. “Gucci sunglasses, UGG boots and other designer labels are no strangers in many students’ closets,” said one article from the school newspaper in 2006.

Trachtenberg insists that GW’s fiscal strategy uses rich kids to subsidize the education of poor kids—an argument that is common among the leaders of private universities that charge high tuition (NYU’s president, John Sexton, says much the same thing). “Some 40 percent of students pay list price,” Trachtenberg says. “These are people from wealthy families; I have no compunction about charging them list price. They can afford it.” But the school’s financial aid numbers make it clear that the picture is a little more complicated.

Many GW students come from families that can’t afford high tuition. As a result, students borrow—a lot. The average borrower leaves Foggy Bottom with $31,299 worth of debt, among the highest levels in the country. That’s thousands more than the average at nearby Georgetown. Some students, like Greg Godfrey, graduate owing $100,000 or more. The son of a Cleveland single mother, Godfrey spent years living hand to mouth after graduating with a business degree in 2006, and still owes more than $75,000. “You just don’t know what you’re doing when you sign up for this stuff,” Godfrey says.

Nor is it clear that Godfrey and his fellow students got a great long-term investment in return. According to People Capital, an organization that tracks earning potential, a typical GW student (political science major, with average GW SAT scores and a 3.0 college GPA) would have almost exactly the same career earning potential if he attended significantly lower-debt schools like the University of Virginia or the University of Maryland.

If GW puts many of its students in a financially precarious situation, it’s worth noting that the school itself shares much the same plight. Like a recent graduate with a crushing loan, GW operates on the fiscal equivalent of paycheck to paycheck, covering nearly 80 percent of annual expenses from tuition revenue—much higher than the 40 percent average among private national research universities. The university generates little revenue from its endowment, and prospects of improving the situation are bleak: only 11 percent of alumni donate, compared to the average among similar universities in the 50 percent range.

Godfrey, for one, doesn’t plan to donate to his alma mater anytime soon. While he’s now making a decent salary—he recently obtained a job at World Wrestling Entertainment working on digital media products—he still pays some $700 a month to service the loans he accumulated studying at GW. “I mean, maybe if I made like $3 million a year I’d give something to GW,” Godfrey jokes.

Meanwhile, despite the high tuition, GW’s assault on the upper reaches of higher education status has stalled: the university made it all the way to fifty-first place on the U.S. News list in 2004, just short of tier one, but has fallen back a few spots since. GW seems to have found the upper limits of arriviste institution building in higher education. Other striving campuses, including Boston University, Drexel, and Northeastern, have ended up in similar circumstances. The wrappings have become fancier than ever, but the product inside tastes pretty much the same.

The GW institutional model—embracing high tuition, excessive construction projects, and massive undergraduate debt—has become the dominant one in higher education, and every university president seems to want to be Stephen Joel Trachtenberg. American University, for instance, another second-tier school just four and a half miles from GW, does exactly the same things GW does, only more so. The average borrower leaves American about $41,000 in debt. Some 84 percent of American’s operating budget is funded by undergraduate tuition. A whole host of second-tier national universities operate in the same manner: they spend on the things that U.S. News measures, and they pay for them with practices that U.S. News doesn’t care about, like student loans.

It would be one thing if GW and schools like it were trying to break the Ivy League’s monopoly on prestige by offering demonstrably better educations. But there’s very little evidence that the quality of GW’s academic program has risen in step with its tuition rates. When I asked GW if I could see the results of its Collegiate Learning Assessment, a study of institutional academic progress that the Council for Aid to Education, a nonprofit, has carried out at hundreds of schools, the university did not respond. This isn’t unusual; most institutions keep their CLA results closely concealed and actively resist efforts to allow consumer comparisons on that basis. But that leaves precious few markers of academic quality by which to measure such schools. GW likes to boast of its impressive network of plugged-in D.C. professionals who serve as adjunct professors. But adjuncts come cheap; they certainly don’t justify the university’s exorbitant cost. The school’s graduation rate is 81 percent—not bad, but not especially good, either, putting it in the same league as much cheaper schools like Virginia Tech and the University of Maryland.

In fact, in a couple of very basic ways, GW may even have gone downhill in the years since it went upmarket. Yezer, the economics professor, says that fewer and fewer courses are taught by tenured professors, and that class sizes have gotten larger over the years. When GW was a cheap school, introductory economics classes had 160 students, he says. Now, despite the new higher tuition costs, they run to 270.

And what of the local constituency of students that GW once served so well? Those students haven’t gone away, of course. But they go elsewhere. The Capitol policeman of today doesn’t look to the high-toned GW for his degree in public administration or criminal justice. Instead he might look to the for-profit Strayer University, which has five campuses in the D.C. area—all happy to nickel-and-dime him by the course. Indeed, the prodigious rise of the for-profit education sector is arguably just a canny response to higher education’s abandonment of Timex students for the Rolex crowd.

None of this is to say that George Washington is a bad school. In all sorts of ways, GW is a fine university, with well-respected law and business schools, an up-and-coming school of international affairs, excellent access to internships and jobs on Capitol Hill, and one of the best student-run newspapers in the country. It also does well in measures prized by the Washington Monthly, such as high rates of participation in the Peace Corps.

Moreover, it’s possible that GW could one day become a truly top-shelf school. In future years, alumni who are both wealthier and more devoted to their alma mater than past graduates may have the capacity and inclination to give generously, reducing the school’s need to rely so overwhelmingly on tuition. But it seems just as likely that GW could turn out to be one more overleveraged artifact of our gilded age. New, more streamlined institutional models could steal into Washington, capitalize on the same geographic advantages, and undercut GW on cost. Or a school with a more established brand name could establish a satellite campus, partner with a major policy organization, and beat GW in prestige. (For a model of how this might work, check out Kevin Carey’s “The Mayo Clinic of Higher Ed,” page 27.)

But above all, GW seems vulnerable to a potential change in the way we think about higher education. What if we actually started measuring how much students learn at their colleges and universities? How would that change the competition among institutions? Would the schools with the blue-chip price tags and high average debt loads fall from the top ranks? Would it spell an end to the era in which a forbidding set of entrance standards and a few stone facades are enough to tell us that a school is doing a great job? Let’s hope so. It would be great if more universities competed to be excellent. What we have now is schools that spend a lot of money—students’ money, taxpayers’ money—merely to look that way.

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

Comments

  • ceilidth on August 23, 2010 1:51 PM:

    I graduated from GW during the Lloyd Elliot years and some, but not all of this, rings true. GW's traditional aged undergrads were upper middle class and we had next to no contact with those who went to what was quaintly called "the night school." I don't know how tuition compared with other schools, but my upper middle class parents didn't think it was all that cheap! And more critically, while we did have tenured or tenure track professors teaching almost every class, those night school students did not. I remember taking one night class in English comp with an excruciatingly bad teacher. It was clear there were two different schools operating. In the day classes, we had small enough classes that I can't remember ever taking multiple choice types exams; we had to write and write and write--essay exams, long papers, short papers and lead seminar presentations. The adjunct faculty for the traditional aged students at that time also included people like the curators of physical anthropology and vertebrate paleontology at the Smithsonian teaching undergrad courses in their specialties. GW has always been an underdog in DC and we certainly felt it in those days, but those of us who were serious students recognized that we got a very good education even if not a prestigious one.

  • lisa on August 23, 2010 1:57 PM:

    I think you're being a little hard on GWU. As you say, it has some excellent programs and most students drawn to the school are drawn by those programs. Its ability to get internships for students is a huge plus.

    I say this as someone with no real links to the school. When my son applied to schools a couple of years ago, though, GWU was high on his list because of his interest in international relations. We don't have a lot of money, but GWU offered him a $20,000-a-year scholarship, which brought the yearly cost down to the level of what most students would expect to pay at a good state university--and our yearly cost would have been fixed at that level for all his four years, no matter how much tuition rose. He ultimately chose another school, but I see nothing about GWU's operation that calls for this scathing report.

  • Michael on August 23, 2010 6:42 PM:

    I recently taught for several years at one of the 2nd rate colleges that opted for the GW route: massive spending on buildings accompanied by massive increases in tuition, with an attempt to fashion an aura of exclusivity by attracting and turning down ever larger numbers of applicants who wanted to believe that the college had cachet in proportion to its cost. This college even carved out its own niche in the higher-ed con-game: It trawled for rich students who were so difficult personally that their parents would be relieved to place them anywhere at all that had "cachet". But the quality of students barely improved over the years. If anything the reverse. And the educational standards definitely slipped in many ways in order to guarantee that the students' expensive investment led to an automatic college degree. Though the students seemed to do less studying every year, the college aimed for obscenely high graduation rates (partly because US News factored that in its rankings). The faculty didn't much improve either, because the administration wasn't looking for talented and demanding educators. Instead it wanted faculty who could create the impression of a challenging education, but without its reality. The college managed to rise in the US News rankings for several years, but then stalled at its (unnatural) ceiling. I'd previously taught at one of the finest and most challenging colleges in the US, so it felt like I'd entered bizarro world when I migrated to this GW-clone. Nearly everything about the educational environment there was a sham. Parents and students, however, appeared to be blithely unaware of how they were being sold a bill of goods.

  • Marla on August 24, 2010 11:47 AM:

    I'm not sure how NYU gets thrown into this (unless you are referring to the undergrad school). After getting my MBA from NYU, I found a job that paid back my loans within 1 year of graduating. If you are referring to the undergrad school, are you taking into account the focus of the school? I'm sure graduates of the Tisch Arts school or the Wagner public policy school aren't making as much as lots of others, but they ultimately may be providing a better value to society than I am.

  • Nancy on August 24, 2010 12:38 PM:

    This article fails to highlight the growing importance of GW's unparalleled internship opportunities -- an increasingly valuable component of how we define a quality education in today's competitive job market. My daughter, currently a very happy sophomore at GW, who graduated in the top ten percent of her class from a highly ranked high school (and with SAT scores in the 700's), chose GW over more prestigious schools because she recognized that her access to a variety of internships throughout her college experience would set her apart from her peers upon graduation. She also believed that in a world that is changing at breakneck speed, a real-world education is equally important to classroom learning.

    GW's unique combination of classes taught by professors who are actively working in their fields, lectures by world leaders and ample opportunities to intern with world-class organizations are drawing in higher numbers of qualified students. Furthermore, GW is now attracting top-level students by offering very generous merit scholarships and fixed tuition. My daughter ultimately decided that GW's offer of a merit scholarship combined with multiple internship opportunities, emphasis on community service and a highly interesting course load was too good an offer to pass up. She has not regretted her decision for a minute.

  • Andrew Karp on August 24, 2010 5:08 PM:

    Hello Mr. Luzer...

    I read your article "The Prestige Racket" in the online edition of The Washington Monthly with great interest, as I am a GWU alumnus (undergrad and grad degrees) and, some years ago, was the university's alumni recruiting committee chair here in Northern CA, where I now live.

    First, you misspelled Professor Anthony Yezer's last name in your article. Please correct that, if you can. Dr. Yezer is both a long-serving GW faculty member and very popular with his students, so I think the least he deserves is to have his name spelled properly in your article.

    Second, I am not quite sure you have your facts straight about the renovations/additions to the Marvin Center. It's my understanding that the original building, which was completed in the late 1960's-early 1970's was largely paid for with a substantial donation by the widow of Cloyd Heck Marvin, who preceded Lloyd Elliot as GW's president. It's also my understanding that a significant fraction of the funds spent on the recent expansion/upgrade of the Marvin Center came from alumni and corporate donations. Whatever the source of the funds, as the university's on-campus student population increased, it should be obvious that the size of the student center facility should also increase. Also, I think it makes perfect sense that after 40 or so years of use, ANY building that has the level of "daily traffic" as the Marvin Center does would require renovations and upgrades. Have you ever been inside the building? It does not seem to be overly lavish to me, even after the new atrium was completed. Last, a large part of the money to administer/maintain the Marvin Center comes from a "student activities fee" all GW students pay each semester. You also fail to mention that, until recently, GW earned substantial revenues from leasing parts of the Marvin Center out as a conference center to other organizations.

    Third, I think you unfairly single out and attack GW, and its former president, SJ Trachtenberg, for understanding clearly the market forces impacting the demand for "traditional" undergraduate student education in the mid 1980's, when he came to GW with a direct mandate from the then Board of Trustees to rouse the university from its then slumber as a "safety school" for students who had been denied admission Georgetown but who wanted to go to a school in DC. Many other schools in GW's "market basket" also improved their physical plant, enhanced on-campus housing and other resources for students, and raised their tuition, significantly, over the past 20 years or so. In GW's case, Trachtenberg and the Board of Trustees understood that they would have to compete for students on the basis of the quality of campus life, academics, and, yes, prestige with other institutions. Many of the "amenities" on the GW campus you decry reflect changing needs of students/parents in a changing marketplace for higher education. Your article is therefore biased in this respect and displays only the most facile understanding of the economic forces underlying college recruitment/admissions at private universities.

    A more balanced assessment of GWU would have included quotes in your article from recent graduates who are very happy with the quality of education they received at GW and who are doing well in their career paths. Instead, you found one guy who, unfortunately, is--like a lot of people in these reduced economic times--having trouble paying his student loans. Sadly, that's not unique to GW, is it? You also fail to mention (significantly) in my opinion, that alumni giving (both in terms of the number of donors and the amount of the donations) to GW has increased in past years. In addition, you "forgot" to mention how many wealthy alumni have made recent major gifts for the construction of, among other things, GW's new business school, academic center, and a renovated sports center.

    Yes, on the face of things,

  • Andrew Karp on August 24, 2010 5:30 PM:

    Correction to my previous post...in re-reading the article again, I see that Dr. Yezer's name is now correctly spelled every place it is mentioned in the article.

  • Mike S. on August 24, 2010 5:50 PM:

    This analysis is so true. Colleges like GWU contribute to the unsustainable cost of higher education by disguising itself as a top university through prime location and higher tuition.

  • jbowman on August 24, 2010 8:17 PM:

    As Mr. Luzer has unfortunately learned from the tl;dr comment from Andrew H. Carp, graduates of second-rate schools are very sensitive to criticism of the old alma mater. A graduate of a first-rate school would laugh it off.

  • Andrew H Karp on August 24, 2010 9:03 PM:

    JBowman's reaction to my comments are quite amusing.

    I am also dismayed he/she apparently lacks the courtesy to spell my last/family name correctly.

    Believe me, I have plenty of criticisms I could offer about GWU, and so do most of our alumni, but that's not the issue.

    What IS the issue is Mr. Luzer's highly biased and inaccurate "reporting." I am still waiting for Mr. Luzer and/or JBowman to respond to the factual criticisms I have made of this article.

    Andrew H. Karp
    Sonoma, CA

  • Simon on August 24, 2010 9:27 PM:

    I totally agree with Mr. Luzer's assessment of GWU. But I beg to disagree with lumping NYU with GWU and AU. NYU is no Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Stanford or Georgetown but it is definitely in a much higher category than GWU. I live in NJ where a lot of students go to NYU and GWU and I can definitely tell you that students going to NYU are of much better caliber. I don't consider NYU being an "up-and-coming" school. It has a great track record here in the States and worldwide.

  • Anonymous on August 25, 2010 8:28 AM:

    Simon: NYU and GW are very similar. I was admitted to both, but chose GW because the differences were minor and GW proved to be tens of thousands of dollars cheaper. NYU is better in some ways (career center, prestige, some faculty), but I don't think the students are of any higher caliber (I know many NYU students). In fact, I wouldn't discount NYU to Georgetown either. I also wouldn't put GW/NYU and AU in the same basket either.

    As for Luzer's article, anyone could tell this is shoddy journalism. He starts off saying GW is a 'local commuter school' while simultaneously recalling how Harry Reid moved his family from Nevada to DC to attend GW Law School, while taking work as Capitol Police to help put him through. I suppose GW was/is a commuter school to some, but was Reid a Capitol Police officer who conveniently settled for GW Law or did he not uproot from Nevada to study there?

    He goes on to say GW is no Georgetown because locals attended it and that those in public service careers couldn't afford GW. However, government employees such as at the State Department or those working on the Hill still do enroll in programs at GW, Georgetown, and Johns Hopkins SAIS. I know this because I know some. You don't have to be rich to attend GW. There are multiple ways to fund an education (and furthermore, no one forces anyone to go into debt).

    He goes on to talk about alumni on the school's website and how they only went to the school because it was accessible. On GW's website, as familiar as I am with it...I cannot seem to find the 'black-and-white and color photos' that supposedly 'stud' it. Is Luzer also saying GW cannot tout the fact that it has so many influential and famous alumni? The school may have changed over the decades, but so have many other schools. Things do evolve over time. Fact is, the alumni speak for themselves and they are a reflection of the school.

    Later he talks about Cornell and its student union and how it was paid for...then about some elaborate plot to spend tons of money on buildings to mimic 'elite' schools. I could actually care less about how Cornell had its student union built. I didn't apply to Cornell; I had no interest in it as it did not meet my standards for what I wanted in a school. GW, like Cornell and many other schools, has had donations pay for buildings on its campus. And Cornell, too, has spent its own money to build what it has wanted.

    On debt/financial aid, the picture is at best incomplete. Why someone would graduate with $100k in debt is up to them. GW gives excellent financial aid and publications have noted this. GW grants alone cover all of my tuition. I will graduate with thousands of dollars less in debt than the cited $31,299. My out of pocket cost per semester is only in the hundreds. NYU or BC, to which I was also admitted, would have cost me tens of thousands out of pocket and then much more than $30k in debt. Luzer paints GW as some expensive demon school; I see it as haven given me a great opportunity.

    Luzer then writes about how an introductory economics class has 200+ students. So do hundreds of other schools. I have had a few large lectures, but I have had classes with as low as 13 students and now, an average of about 25.

    Our International Affairs school also isn't up and coming. It's a top school in its field. See Foreign Policy magazine.

    In the end, these are just a few problems with the article, which is written in a very elitist and biased fashion and is clearly incomplete.

  • Philip Wirtz on August 25, 2010 8:36 AM:

    As both a graduate of GWU (*many* moons ago) and someone who returned to the University as a fulltime Faculty member, I took less offense at this article than some of the other posters; to me, many of the facts presented here are (with an occasional exception) at least proximally historically correct. I found three "take-away" messages in this article, and I agree with all three.

    First, GWU administrators over the past 20 years have (like administrators at many institutions of higher education throughout the country) looked at "what sells", in order to promote the name, and have heavily invested in things that "sell". And "what sells" is often only weakly linked -- if at all -- to the quality of education (...for example, the article did not mention the dramatic escalation in the salary of the head basketball coach at GWU, but certainly could have...). GW is by no means alone in this emphasis.

    Second, as Mr. Karp notes in his comment above, there has been *some* recognition by GW administrators of the need to bring "quality of product" in line with "cost," so that it isn't just window dressing. The most notable (to me) form of this recognition is the recent hiring of the two top administrators (President and Provost) from the highest echelons of unquestionably top-ranked research universities (Johns Hopkins and MIT, respectively). Whether a concerted focus by GW on building up its *research* credentials will necessarily translate into a better *educational* experience for its students is a reasonable (and well-argued) question, but there can be little question that GW is now investing heavily in more respect-worthy activities than merely "window dressing".

    The third take-home message (for me) in this article -- which is of absolutely no surprise to Faculty members -- is the almost complete absence of *accessible* measurable educational metrics on which institutions of higher education can be compared. If I had to chastise the author of this article on anything, it would be what appears to be his implicit assumption that institutions like GW, because they are not Harvard, have to make up for their presumed educational deficiencies by having pretty windows.

    Readers will have an obvious reason to assert my bias on this topic, but GW has (in my view) a number of really extraordinary -- and I mean *really* extraordinary -- Faculty members, who rarely get credit, merely because GW does not have the name "Harvard" or "Yale" or "Princeton" or "Berkeley" or "Cornell" or "MIT". Between the Federal government, the high-tech presence in the area (second, I am told, only to Silicon Valley), and the remarkable arts and humanities community, GW has a real draw on the "best and the brightest" in ways that the Harvards of the world cannot even come close to competing with.

    Given my knowledge of the quality of the "GW educational product," I suspect -- and this is admittedly arguable -- that if there existed a set of accessible measurable educational metrics on which institutions of higher education could be compared, GW's superiority would become obvious, and some of the more prestigious institutions (which have the luxury of resting on their endowment-based laurels) would be scrambling to be more like GW in terms of the quality of education that is delivered.

    This is not to say that GW has nowhere to go in terms of improving one of its central missions: there is a great deal of work to be done, and I do worry that too much emphasis will be placed by the new administration on improving the research credentials at the expense of the educational mission.

    But the shortfall, to me, of the article which prompted my response here is the failure to recognize that GW administrators have moved beyond the window-dressing stage, and have (heavily) invested in what society expects from a first-class university. And, as a result, GW is rapidly becoming a top-tier university, unquesti

  • Anonymous on August 25, 2010 11:34 AM:

    To Daniel Luzer: A correction to your article: There are lots of other schools with varsity squash programs, and squash isn't divided by DI/DII/DIII. Ever heard of Middlebury, Trinity, Wesleyan, Williams, etc...?

  • Andrew Karp on August 25, 2010 4:05 PM:

    I forgot to mention in my earlier post that yet another of Mr. Luzer's inaccurate statements about GWU was his reference to the varsity squash team.

    GW had one in the 1970s-80s. It may have faded out after the professor who coached it retired, but squash is not "new" to GW's array of collegiate athletic offerings.

  • chris on August 25, 2010 4:24 PM:

    I wish that Mr. Luzer would explore the funds that more expensive private universities allocate to faculty vs that of public universities. Maintaining what is typically a smaller class size at private universities without state funds has a large impact on tuition. Building projects are not the only thing that private universities are spending their money on.

  • T.S. Foster on August 25, 2010 9:07 PM:

    Looking at the arguments and counter arguments made by people in this forum, I still find Mr. Luzer's analysis closer to the truth. As Professor Wirtz mentioned GWU administrators are window-dressing the university. Whether GWU is beyond the the window-dressing stage remains to be seen and only time will tell. I agree that hiring a president and provost from great universities like Johns Hopkins and MIT is a step in the right direction but I don't think that will make GWU a first-class university. What society expects from a first-class university is best shown by what the graduates of that university contributes to society. I'm not talking about how many billionaire alumni the university has but how much they contributed to the advancement of people worldwide in all areas like the humanities, public health and the sciences. That's what makes a university top-tier. That's what makes Johns Hopkins and MIT great.

    Lastly, to Mr. Andrew Karp, you chastised people for misspelling names but you misspelled as well and of all people the president of GWU, it's Steven and not Stephen.

  • andrew on August 25, 2010 10:02 PM:

    TS Foster,

    No, SJT spells his name "Stephen".

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_Joel_Trachtenberg

  • T.S. Foster on August 25, 2010 10:50 PM:

    Andrew, I said president and not former president.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steven_knapp

  • Jake on August 26, 2010 1:51 AM:

    TS Foster, you argue that what helps make a university great is its alumni and how much they contribute to society. I agree. As a current GWU student I know alumni that have made a huge impact in this world. This article mentions JBKO, Colin Powell, and Harry Reid. But fails to acknowledge that GWU boosts a large presence on Capital Hill. Currently five members of congress to be exact. And that doesn't include all those who have attended the GWU law school, like Senator Daniel Inouye, who was just named President Pro-Tempore, making him fourth in line to the presidency of the United States. Other very influential alumni include J. Edgar Hoover, John Foster Dulles, Dana Bash, Courtney Cox Arquette, Kerry Washington, and many others. Furthermore, a GWU alumnus was just appointed by President Obama as the assistant secretary of public affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services. These are just a few examples, but there are plenty more, like heads of state (ie Mikheil Saakashvili, president of Georgia).

  • T.S. Foster on August 27, 2010 9:57 AM:

    Jake,

    It will be better to stick with Mr. Luzer's example to window-dress GWU i.e. I'll definitely select Gen. Colin Powell who is a statesman. Politicians like Harry Reid and Daniel Inouye I agree are well known but with the national debt in trillion dollars and with congress still spending like there is no tomorrow, I will be careful making them poster boys. I'm sure that's one of the reasons Harry Reid is having a hard time getting re-elected in his home state of Nevada. I'm not talking of fame or fortune here. With all due respect when you say "... I know alumni that have made a huge impact in this world" I will not consider Courtney Cox nor Kerry Washington in that category. To be honest, Courtney Cox and Matt LeBlanc are my least favorites among the "Friends" cast. I myself don't remember or know the names of people who made invaluable contributions that make huge impact in this world. Although I read frequently about them, like a Johns Hopkins researcher doing work on the eradication of malaria or possible causes of cancers. Or a Princeton researcher exploring the mysteries of deep space or a University of Chicago researcher studying children to help with their language impediment. Any university can claim that they are doing research and that their alumni are making huge impact in this world but results do matter. That what makes these great universities the best in the world because as you said "they do make made a huge impact in this world".

  • Michael La Place on August 27, 2010 1:43 PM:

    Mr. Luzer:

    As a proud alumnus of George Washington (BA 1985, MURP 1989) I do not understand the hostile attitude and multiple inaccuracies in this article. The George Washington University (GW) is far from perfect and I do agree that former President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg should never have allowed tuition to skyrocket during his tenure. But you failed to mention that our current leader, President Steven Knapp - who came to GW after serving as Provost at Johns Hopkins - is working with the Board of Trustees to address this issue. Recent tuition increases have been minimized, fundraising for financial aid has increased dramatically and GW offers special programs such as freezing the tuition rate for five years for a student at his/her freshman's rate and there is a tuition credit for multiple family members enrolled at the same time. Not enough, but a great start and you ignored any good news on the tuition front. I am really upset however, at your attack on the integrity, history and quality of the university. You made the institution's early years as Columbian College sound unimportant and limited to religious studies. In fact, Columbian, now George Washington, started the first Medical School (1825) and Law School (1865) in the nation's capital. That's right, even before Georgetown, a school you seem to be quite fond of. Columbian College, then University, was a pioneer in setting up a school of engineering, offering doctorate degrees and admitting women in the late 19th century. So the institution was vital, growing and a leader in higher education long before the administration of President Needham. You even got the name change history wrong. When the proposed building on the Mall did not work out, the George Washington Memorial Association transferred the funds to GW where, along with the generosity of Abram Lisner, the Lisner Auditorium and Dimock Gallery were constructed on campus. Addressing more of your mistakes: the Marvin family did provide the naming gift for the Cloyd Heck Marvin Student Center, Squash has been at GW for a long time - my roommate played on the team in 1981 and the student body is made up of people from all fifty states and 130 countries - not just the Mid Atlantic area. I appreciate you addressing the serious issue of tuition inflation but it was very wrong of you to ignore the steps GW is taking to address the issue and it was completely unprofessional to misrepresent GW's mission, history and reputation.

  • Andrew on August 27, 2010 6:14 PM:

    You missed a very simple fact in this article: GW gives the most financial aid in the country, and a vast majority of students get that aid. In 2007, for example, the average package was $33,000.

    http://media.www.gwhatchet.com/media/storage/paper332/news/2007/08/30/News/U.s-News.Gw.Leads.In.Financial.Aid-2943921.shtml

  • Jason on August 28, 2010 8:43 AM:

    @Andrew Keep in mind that $33,000 includes loans as well as grants. "Because of a comparatively low endowment, GW awards a higher proportion of need-based loans rather than full grants, Small said."

    Also, that article is 3 years old. The new ranking is here: http://colleges.usnews.rankingsandreviews.com/best-colleges/national-best-values and now the average package is $22,522

    (http://www.gwu.edu/apply/undergraduateadmissions/payingforcollege/needbasedassistance)

  • Art on August 29, 2010 7:58 AM:

    To Mr. Michael La Place - I'm not sure what are you so upset about. Does the age of the university matter when it comes to it's quality? Or that GWU started the first medical school (1825) and law school (1865) in the nation's capital. It just made me realized that a number of top-tier universities are younger than GWU like Johns Hopkins (1876), Cornell (1865) and University of Chicago (1890). The more I wonder why GWU is still a second tier university after all those years. In my personal opinion, I would choose a Johns Hopkins doctor or a Georgetown lawyer if my life depends on it. I have a child going to college in 4 years and it's really deplorable for institutions like GWU who contributes to the sky rocketing cost of education just from a mere fact that it is in a great location and named after our first president. After thinking, great colleges are named after people because it's their benefactors or founders like John Harvard, Leland Stanford, Johns Hopkins, Ezra Cornell, James Duke, etc. It looks like Mr. Luzer's points do hold water.

  • Jake on August 31, 2010 1:30 AM:

    T.S. Foster,
    I see your point but to simply point out the 'wrong' that GWU alumni are/have doing is yet again, misguided. I can, and I'm sure you can as well, find several alumni from other major universities that have done 'wrong.' I will not argue the "spending" Congress is doing, but let me assure you that alone cannot be attributed to GWU alumni. The universities that you mentioned do have a strong research foundation, something GWU is still working on, but I will not ignore the impact that GW has made within this nation and world. I think it is completely unfair for Mr.Luzer to single out GW, when clearly many, many other universities "window dress"-but I understand that every university must market itself. GWU is still building a strong foundation for research and I am very proud to be a part of this as a student at the university. For example, GWU just signed a partnership with the Smithsonian to advance research across all forms of academic disciplines. I have, through another partnership between GWU and the Washington Institute of Near East Policy, just completed research on the Middle East peace process, with a focus on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Research that will be published and used by Congress and the White House. As I've stated, to single out GWU is completely unfair. As one who transferred to GWU after attending the University of Pennsylvania for two years, I can honestly say I love and enjoy GWU so much more, and that includes the activities, the internships, and yes the education.

  • Michael La Place on August 31, 2010 1:50 AM:

    "Art" - [how brave of you to use just a first name] - what I am so upset about is Mr. Luzer's misrepresentation of my Alma Mater. You seem to be hung up on the ratings game too - with your mention of "second tier." When you are considering colleges for your child in 4 years, I hope you visit each school and learn about them yourself, don't just rely on silly polls and uninformed articles like the hatchet job Daniel Luzer did on GW. And as for hospitals, George Washington has saved the life of a president (Reagan) and a Vice President (Cheney) so if my life was in jeopardy and I was in DC I would do what the Secret Service told President Reagan's driver to do after he was shot - "Go to George Washington!"

  • Art on August 31, 2010 9:18 AM:

    Mr. La Place - Again, I'm not sure what is your problem almost all the people here uses their first name whether they agree or disagree with Mr. Luzer's article. What has braveness do with using your first name? Is Mr. Luzer right in singling out GWU, maybe not. But GWU is a good example of a university contributing to the unsustainable cost of college education. As I said "contributing" and I'm not saying that colleges like GWU are the only reason for the skyrocketing prices of college education. You try to distort what I'm saying. Don't be so defensive, but you cannot lump GWU with the Johns Hopkins, Stanford, Cornell or U Chicago of the world. In the case of hospitals, you know what I mean unless you don't have common sense. Of course I'll go to GWU if I'm in DC. I will even go to a county hospital if I'm bleeding to death, where ever is the nearest. Is GWU the only one who offer Timex education at Rolex prices, of course not. But you need a good example and GWU fits that. You can keep closing your eyes but their is truth on what Mr. Luzer wrote. Maybe GWU is addressing the issue with their new president but that remains to be seen. And same for you when your kid goes to college, learn about the schools and don't overlook the flaws just because it's your alma mater and hopefully you saved enough.

    -Art Santos

  • Michael La Place on August 31, 2010 10:02 AM:

    Mr. Santos: Did you go to GW? Are you on the faculty there? If not, then how can you honestly rate the quality of education at George Washington? I have two degrees from GW, worked closely with faculty as a graduate teaching assistant and lived on campus for seven years. I was even an employee of the university in several departments. So I base my views on my knowledge of and experience at GW.

  • JCS on August 31, 2010 3:34 PM:

    Dear Mr. Luzer and Other Detractors:

    I am an alumna of GW ('98 Philosophy [Public Affairs Option]). After graduating with a traditional liberal arts education, I went on to obtain two advanced degrees (an MA in East Asian Area Studies and a JD) from schools US News ranks in the first tier. While I valued certain aspects of my experience at all three institutions, I found, by far, that the overall quality of education was higher at GW in comparison with the two other schools, as was the caliber of students.

    Your first reaction might be that I'm comparing apples and oranges because I was an undergraduate at GW, while I was a graduate and a professional student elsewhere. However, I consider myself qualified to offer this opinion for several reasons. First, I was a graduate teaching assistant at one of these institutions. As a TA, I was charged with instructing (via discussion sections), grading and fielding almost all of the questions and office-hours visits of the undergraduates to whom I was assigned. Serving as a TA for 4 semesters, I became familiar with a wide cross-section of the undergraduate student body. Although this university boasted top-flight incoming GPAs and test scores, as well as high post-admission stats -- largely due I suspect to grade inflation (rampant at most schools today but, incidentally, was *not* the norm at GW) -- I found the students I taught, on average, unremarkable. They were average thinkers and writers, at best, and generally mediocre in their ability to speak and express their ideas. They also demonstrated a certain apathy in their worldview(s) which I find, unfortunately, to be characteristic of many young people today. Of course, there were always a handful of standouts, but they were the exception.

    I also found myself thinking on more than one occasion that I was glad I was attending as a graduate student and not an undergraduate student. I also remember being grateful that, in comparison, so many of my courses at GW had been taught solely by the faculty themselves. At GW, I had relatively few TAs -- a fact which, though I was generally liked and respected as a TA, would have made *my* students envious.

    At the other school, where I was a law student, I made similar observations about the young ILs who, by and large, had just finished their undergraduate studies no more than a year or two before entering law school. At 28, I found myself about 5-6 years older that my average classmate. Having some perspective on both education and real-world job experience, I didn't view myself as being in league with most of the other students. While not lacking in bravado (most law students aren't), they turned out to be, again, mostly average.

    By contrast, my circle of friends and acquaintances at GW were, and are, among the best, brightest, most motivated and most successful people I know today (several have done quite well in the corporate world, in government, in the non-profit sector and in the legal and medical professions). Likewise, I regard the quality of teaching I received from the tenure-track faculty at GW to be as high as or higher than that at the other schools I attended. Moreover, the curricula were by far more comprehensive and balanced -- taking into account both the historical foundations of the discipline and a variety of perspectives among currents scholars in the field. On the other hand, the teaching at so many of the first-tier schools today solely represents the revisionist, postcolonial, postmodern and/or Neo-Marxian critiques that have been so fashionable in academia over the last forty or so years. Make no mistake: these perspectives are important, but they have to be presented in context, with an understanding of what preceded these movements and the criticisms of other serious scholars who do not share these views. The faculty at GW did precisely this.

    In short, my own experience does not bear out your views and I'm not sur

  • Art on August 31, 2010 3:50 PM:

    Mr. La Place,

    I did not go to GWU nor Johns Hopkins, Stanford, Cornell or U Chicago but I consider them top-tier vs GWU. To imply that you can "honestly" rate GWU because you were a student, an employee, lived there for years, etc., etc. just defy reason. In fact I'll venture to say that you have a conflict of interest. Just because you were associated with GWU for a long time doesn't mean that I will take your word that GWU is top-tier. In this world you need to show metrics to justify your position. I admit metrics can be debated and argued like graduation rates, number of Nobel laureates, faculty with PhD, research funding, etc. but at least we can discuss more reasonably. To simply say that you can asses more "honestly" because you went there just tell me that you cannot defend your position. Hopefully GWU did not teach you that kind of reasoning.

  • Michael La Place on August 31, 2010 6:02 PM:

    I am grateful to The George Washington University for my education and for all the other benefits of being associated with GW. I am extremely proud of my Alma Mater. Have a great life and best wishes, Mr. Santos. And to JCS - thank you and Hail to the Buff & Blue!

  • Madison on August 31, 2010 7:28 PM:

    LOL Art Santos, you must find something interesting about GWU for you to constantly keep coming back to this article. GWU is a fine institution. Mr. Santos, get a life!

  • John T. on August 31, 2010 7:30 PM:

    GW = Georgetown Waitlist

    Always has, always will. Also, as the article insinuates, it's female population has grown increasingly full of Long Island girls wearing Gucci sunglasses with North Face jackets while "tawking" on their cell phones.

    Sorry, but as the illustrious university president seemingly admits, GW is a factory, just stamping out graduates and trying to fill its coffers after years of over-leveraged over-expansion.

  • JCS on August 31, 2010 10:27 PM:

    @John T.:

    Actually this isn't true. As an alumna I conducted regional interviews of prospective freshmen last year. An admissions officer told me that students who don't show a strong, specific interest in GW as a school receive an unfavorable recommendation from their interviewer. Apparently, this is in turn reflected in admissions decisions. In particular, it's my understanding that students who indicate Georgetown is their first preference are often denied admission even if they have the credentials to get in to both schools...

    As for your crude stereotypes of the student body, yes, there are girls like that on campus. I've also heard ethnic and religious epithets describing the student body (such as "JAP-py" or "Jew-W"), but I certainly hope you don't share the same sophomoric humor (not to mention bigotry). The students you refer to represent a mere fraction of the school's demographics, which are remarkably diverse. Besides, I'm not aware of any study showing affluent students are necessarily less intelligent or less motivated than poor students (which your comment derisively implies). At GW there are smart, successful students from all walks of life.

  • Megan on August 31, 2010 10:46 PM:

    I have several friends at Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and all the other Ivy schools, including Georgetown. They ALL say it is nothing but hype! I can too personally testify to this. As a transfer from Cornell to GWU, Cornell was far overrated. My professors at Cornell were so wrapped up in their research that they always neglected their students. As a result, students would suffer. Profs at Cornell would just curve the tests because everyone would fail, then they would go back to their research! never one time did I have the chance to personally sit down and speak with my profs at Cornell because they were always do something else besides teaching. At GWU the profs truly care about the students and genuinely want to see us succeed. My profs at GWU even give us their home and cell phone if we EVER need anything. I love my GW and the education is incredible! All these other schools are hype! To me the only critiques that matter are the students. Go to college reviews and see how students rate the Ivies, then go to GWU and see how not only is it one of the most popular but see how much better students rate it!

  • kyleandrew43085 on August 31, 2010 11:28 PM:

    @JCS: Wow, is that really the case? I can understand looking unfavorably at a student if GWU is not on his/her top choices but to single out specific students by denying admission even if they have the credentials just because their first choice is Georgetown is underhanded if not discriminatory. These are high school seniors/juniors making their top choices that they themselves might not be sure about unless they apply early decision to a specific school. As a parent of a prospective student, I didn't realize or maybe too naive to realize the dark side of the admission process.

  • Summer on September 01, 2010 11:20 AM:

    As a current GW student who transferred from a commuter school, I know first hand what the students at such establishments miss out on, namely the sense of a community. I applaud Trachtenberg for his efforts to create a GW community. In order to do this he recognized the need to build infrastructure for the students that would allow them the space to meet and interact on campus, a need that is still seen today and which current President Knapp is also addressing. As GW continues to create state-of-the-art buildings, it gives in return to its students a reason to take pride in their school and a reason to continue to interact with their fellow students outside of the classroom. This is not about “prestige,” it’s about community!

  • Tony Johnson on September 01, 2010 11:21 AM:

    Great article. I think it is spot on. GW has made great strides to improve itself as an academic institution similar to what University of Maryland University College has done over the past decade.

  • TXR on September 01, 2010 6:51 PM:

    I'd just like to say that I found the quality of my undergraduate education at GW to be fantastic. Any college is what you make of it, and GW has a lot of great qualities, including internships and independent research projects, as well as small class size overall. I received a full ride scholarship, but absolutely would not have attended if I hadn't received so much merit aid. Flat out wouldn't have been able to pay for it. GW definitely will lose top students if their aid packages aren't sufficient, but I do think the quality of courses is high.

    I'm at a top-tier -- top 10 -- university now completing my doctorate and am constantly thankful I went to a mid-size school like GW with an honors program and engaged faculty when I hear the undergrads here complain about classes with 600 students and not knowing any faculty members to write them recommendation letters. I love my PhD school for graduate education, but would have been a bad choice for me undergrad.

    Everything should not be about rank or fancy buildings I agree - I ignored all that for the most part when I applied - school size, enrichment programs, (such as honors programs, etc), location, internships, and research experience were my qualifications for undergrad. I realize I may be in the minority.

    This is my anecdotal experience, thought I would leave a comment if it is helpful for someone.

  • JCS on September 01, 2010 9:14 PM:

    @kyleadrew43085:

    Let me clarify. There are many students at GW who initially expressed an interest in other schools, including Georgetown. This is natural and is not what I meant to reference. What I'm talking about is a scenario in which a student makes it abundantly clear that her *only* interest in GW is as a perceived safety school -- particularly as a safe second choice to Georgetown. From my understanding, Admissions doesn't like to hear or see that. First, the admissions standards for getting into GW are high and the quality of applicants is high (even higher than when I applied as a prospective freshman in the 1990s, and even at that time, GW was highly competitive). GW attracts top talent, so it can afford to be choosy and, therefore, shouldn't automatically be considered a safety school -- especially in comparison with Georgetown, which attracts many of the same kinds of students. Second, Admissions apparently considers it a waste of time to offer a seat to a student who isn't enthusiastic about attending GW when the next applicant, whose credentials are also very good, does express enthusiasm. This makes sense: schools want to make efficient admissions decisions that are in both the school's and the student's best interests. If an applicant considers GW inferior and will only attend if she can't get into Georgetown, she's not likely to be a good fit, is she? An analogy can be drawn to the job interview process: if you tell a prospective employer that you only want the job if another offer falls through or until something better comes along, what do you think your chances are of getting the job? Students need to take this into account; it's good to be honest about your interest in other schools, but don't sabotage yourself by telling the school you're applying to that it's an also-ran. At 17 or 18 years-old, I think prospective freshmen in this day and age should be savvy enough to recognize this.

  • jms on September 03, 2010 8:35 AM:

    The reader sees Mr. Karp is carping that Mr. Luzer's article is a loser, yet this is a comment for any future college chooser.

    I once wooed a girl who studied her field in GW buildings, and I often waited outside on the concrete where the traffic amid yield signs was a yielding.

    I often wished for more greenery instead of more exhaust, yet then she graduated and my leafy dreams were dropped and lost.

    Now she is successful thanks to her academic life, and she is now indeed, apparently my wife.

  • Gerald Baker on September 06, 2010 12:51 PM:

    According to a news item I just read today, the average accumulated student debt at Iowa State University, my own alma mater, is second-highest in the Nation, next to that in the District of Columbia.

    I don't know anything about Iowa State's position, on the totem-pole of "prestige." However, in a letter I'd written, that was published in the "Iowa State Daily," three years ago this month, I said,

    "I think it's a pity and a disgrace that so many of today's college graduates have to begin the rat race of life with millstones of debt hung around their necks."

  • Richard Livingstone on September 07, 2010 5:15 PM:

    As a current undergraduate at the George Washington University I am saddened to read this article on the presumed �Prestige Racket� that has become my home and beacon of knowledge in the heart of our nation�s capitol. What the author has in surface #�s and images he lacks in detailed figures and thoughts. The attack on Stephen Joel Trachtenberg is highly out of line and simply unwarranted. From 1988 to 2008 university tuition rose about $25,000. Over 19 years that�s an average of a $1,300 per year increase. Currently, university tuition rises at about the same rate in an even worse economy? The $39,000 tuition figure the author speaks of is on par with Cornell and Columbia University, a public and private university respectively, in New York state, both of which currently have tuition costs in the $39,000s.

  • Jason on September 10, 2010 9:29 AM:

    Dear Editor,

    Daniel Luzer’s article titled “The Prestige Racket” regarding George Washington University so-called attempted prestige climb is off the mark. Mr. Luzer covers a broad range of topics and factors but fails to dig deeper than the surface and examine any specific factor in general.

    Mr. Luzer seems to imply that GW’s students are somehow duped into attending the University and paying high tuition. He suggests that somehow, students are convinced to select GW based on its glamorous buildings and other supposedly superficial qualities. Mr. Luzer suggests that GW’s students are superficial as well; he suggests that GW is for students who want to pay bundles of money simply because it is so expensive and he references the students’ knowledge of popular trends as evidence that they are vain and materialistic. As a student, I can attest to the fact that materialism is a running joke at the university, but anyone who takes those accusations seriously, as Mr. Luzer seems to, is misguided. Why Mr. Luzer thinks that people can’t both have knowledge of pop culture trends and also be smart, serious people is beyond me. (For the record, we also don’t believe that George Washington actually founded the University though he did offer land for such a purpose. University administrators are very forthcoming about the fact that GW was founded as the Columbian College when President Monroe signed a congressional charter in 1821, despite Mr. Luzer’s suggestion that we may believe otherwise.) To simplify the student population’s reasons for attending the University to something so basic is as ridiculous as it is small-minded. GW offers students something that only a small number of universities in the world can offer. Students frequently accept internships in Congress, the State Department and a wide variety of other federal organizations. There are numerous opportunities for students to find internships and jobs with other private organizations that they would no be able to accept were they to attend a university in another city.

    While GW may not be able to compete academically with the Harvards, Yales, and Princetons of this country, GW does boast a wide variety of professors with expertise in their field of study, many of whom have an abundance of experience in the fields in which they now teach. Not only do students study theory from these professors, they also learn the practical applications of the subjects they are studying as well. Mr. Luzer has obviously not taken a close look at the classes offered at GW either. Should he do so, he would learn that a relatively small number of non-introductory classes have more than one hundred students and many have fewer than fifty students. Unsurprisingly, Mr. Luzer fails to acknowledge that large introductory classes are typical of just about every university, including the prestigious ones. Many schools offer classes with as many as five hundred students. GW does not even have a single classroom that can accommodate more than three hundred students, and I can count on one hand the number that can accommodate more than two hundred. There are several criticisms one can make against GW, but class size is not one of them. Students are given several opportunities to take small classes, should they so choose; to put it bluntly, Mr. Luzer is simply wrong.

    Many of these classes are offered in state-of-the-art facilities, and Mr. Luzer’s reason for suggesting that constructing such facilities is a negative quality is elusive. As a student with many friends that are also students, I can say that we would much prefer to be offered classes that are taught with the newest technologies than with chalk and a blackboard. Mr. Luzer bashes GW for desiring top-notch facilities, but when a student center is donated to a top tier university, he doesn’t seem to have a problem. Mr. Luzer is apparently aware that GW does not receive a large number of donations, but also wants to

  • GCS on September 12, 2010 7:42 AM:

    Very good article. I hope you write more articles like this Mr. Luzer. It really exposes what ails the U.S. college education today. I just read an article from GWU newsletter (link below) titled "Student loan debt outpaces credit card debt in U.S. - Americans owe $830 billion in student loans". It also states that "GW students graduate with an average of 13 percent higher debt than the average of private universities across the nation." which also mentioned AW and NYU students with biggest debt loads. College education is one of the last areas where the U.S. have a great advantage worldwide. It's unfortunate that these runaway costs of college education is ruining U.S. competitiveness globally. It's almost like the internet stocks and real estate market, it's just a matter of time before this college education cost bubble burst. I'm hoping that this doesn't happen. Thanks again for the good article.

    http://media.www.gwhatchet.com/media/storage/paper332/news/2010/08/30/News/Student.Loan.Debt.Outpaces.Credit.Card.Debt.In.U.s-3925842.shtml

  • Graham on September 13, 2010 1:54 PM:

    I'll admit it that I attended GW for the perks: living in a city that matters, bathrooms that I don't share with a 100 other people, freshmen year maid service, pools in my dorms, shiny facilities, a lack of hippies and a decidedly non-frat-tastic environment. A solid education was also provided and I have no regrets. If you don't want to pay for these perks, don't go.

  • Andrew on September 17, 2010 10:33 AM:

    Also, in regards to the Georgetown waitlist comment, I went to GW and never applied to Gtown. I got into better schools but chose GW due to the generous financial aid they offered me. I was able to attend for a very reasonable price thanks to that and I haven't regretted it at all. I have a good job doing what I want to do and I enjoyed my time at GW. I could care less about most of what Mr. Luzer claims in this article.

  • smp on September 20, 2010 12:02 PM:

    I totally agree with Andrew,above,GWU offers excellent financial aid to not only low income students but to students who have done well in acdemics. Many parnets who have children that do very good in HS find that their children do not qualify for aid based on the parents financial situation. GW has an outstanding financial aid program which in todays economy means everything, even to well off parents.

    How many colleges and universities offer freshman tuition costs for all four years? Gauranteed! How many schools offer 1/2 tuition for siblings?

    These and other issues should be taken into account when these lists are made up. As a parent I found the Financial Aid Officers at GWU up front and correct in regards to what we would be paying, not just for 1 yr. but for the duration of our childs education. After looking at the other offers schools made to our child it was a no brainer to send him to GWU.

    We don't regret it at all. Yes, housing has gone up as the FAO has told us it would but aside from that the costs have been extremely reasonable.

    Mr. Luzier claiming that the school is "runious" financial,along with other issues he mentioned, makes me think that he has not done his homework in regards to what he is writing about.

  • Greg F on October 23, 2010 1:22 PM:

    I'll be blunt. I'm a GW graduate (Elliot School, 2003). The content of this article and the commentary by detractors are BOTH correct.

    GW was an expensive, commercialized experience. It felt plastic and uncaring, and the gimmicks (like hosting Crossfire) were cheesy and obvious. It did not feel like a top-tier school but felt like it was desperately trying. The administration-student relationship was atrocious. I plan to give no money to my Alma Mater. They bled me for what money they could get while I was a student, anyway. I do not remember Trachtenberg fondly. No student does. The man was full of himself (the school bookstore prominently displayed his seminal work, entitled something along the lines of "How to be a Great University President" while he was still president), put no stock in community or well-being of students (was notorious for refusing to participate in campus life and created one of the most infuriatingly bureaucratic administrations in history), and sent his own sons to Columbia and Yale. The thing speaks for itself. GW was his project, not his home. The reality of life at GW reflected that.

    Now then, all that said... the students and professors were top-rate, without question. I've been to Ivy League schools for competitions and programs and found the only difference to be wealth, frankly. At the end of the day, that's the determining factor, whether Ivy League schools admits it or not. When I was an undergrad, you could not even apply to Brown if you were poor; their admissions process was not/not need-blind. At GW, there was a healthier mix of classes, and they DID give me substantial grant and scholarship money.

    But what about concrete results? I'll let them speak for themselves. I did some very prestigious internships (US Embassy Paris, Goldman Sachs) and won some very prestigious awards (Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarship, National Science Foundation Research Grant), and I firmly believe that that was entirely creditable to my studying at GW. I am now in my career of choice, and the world, frankly, is my oyster (knock on wood). At no point did I feel like I was being outclassed by my Ivy League competition. At the end of the day... that's the only real benchmark, right?

    Conclusion: yes, GW is a cheese and a rip-off. And yes, it's an excellent school that adds value and produces results. And yes, it could do much better, frankly. And yes, I'm happy I went there. But no, I do not love GW and will not give them my money. At the end of the day, that's another important benchmark, right?

    And so maybe GW does deserve to meander in a purgatory between heaven and hell, between top-tier and second-tier, between the ivory towers and the riffraff.

    Sincerely,

    Greg

  • cristina on October 29, 2010 12:32 PM:

    I'm a spanish student from Madrid. University here is divided in public and private ones. Tuition to enrole public university here is within a range of 800 dollars to 1000 dollars per year. Private university multiplie this quantity by five.
    Most universities here are public, and its education is very prestigious, conversely to the consideration is given to private education.

    I've recently graduated in law at Carlos III university in Madrid, Spain, a public institution. Cheap tuition was not an obstacle for my university to defeat expensive Harvard two years ago in the C.Vis willen international commercial moot, one of the most prestigious international competition in this field. More than 200 universities took part in the moot. It's a clear example to illustrate this article.

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  • Jay from NYC on December 20, 2010 10:27 AM:

    Interesting read.

    Given the influence of US News rankings, I always thought the magazine should use the amount of debt as a metric for determining the rankings. This is a factor that would actually be helpful for students since schools would then feel pressure to relieve students' of these ridiculous debt loads upon graduating. While this metric might benefit richer schools, it could be implemented in a way to take that into account.

  • LexcepERene on January 19, 2011 10:36 PM:

    Very informative post. Thanks for taking the time to share your view with us.

  • Anthony on March 29, 2011 4:27 PM:

    Interesting article. In response to the observation that "...only 11 percent of alumni donate, compared to the average among similar universities in the 50 percent range", perhaps more alumni would be in a position to give back if they didn't spend the first decade out of school trying to secure a financial foothold in the "real world." The entire value proposition of higher education is out-of-whack with reality and change is imminent. As a mid-thirty year old with an MBA, I can attest firsthand that leveraging yourself financially to obtain education is risky at best. I need to bring home a certain amount just to be able to repay my student loans yet many positions that offer a salary that would suffice are not hiring and the companies that are do not pay enough.

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  • Bonnie on September 27, 2011 12:43 AM:

    @Michael - I have a feeling that I know which school you're talking about. Care to share its name...or at least the geographic region?

  • John on September 27, 2011 8:47 PM:

    rankingsandreviews.com has the following rankings for The George Washington University Law School:

    20th overall and with less tuition than all higher ranked law schools.
    3rd in intellectual property law.
    5th in international law, tied with Yale.
    3rd in part time law.

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  • GW Parent on March 19, 2012 12:18 PM:

    I am from Portland, Oregon. My son graduated from GW 5 years ago, and my daughter graduated from Cornell7 years ago, both majoring in Economics. We got a package for GW that only cost us about 24,000 a year, something my son says was pretty common among his friends, even adding that of his 15 closest friends, not one paid full tuition. I'll let the results speak for themselves, both work at Credit Suisse in New York City, and my son is currently his sisters boss. Both are equally as bright however my son had more opportunity to intern and gain real world experience while in Washington D.C. as opposed to my daughter who didn't get the same chance in Ithaca, New York. My son donates to GW every year as he attributes most of his success to the school and his professors.

  • Another GW parent on June 27, 2012 3:12 AM:

    I attended an Ivy league school, and believe they are great but over-hyped, particularly for undergraduates. My daughter could have gone to a few of the Ivies, but chose GW largely because of the location and a hefty merit scholarship. She actually saved us loads of money by attending GW instead. She loved her four years in Foggy Bottom and had the most amazing experiences in DC and overseas. She went on to graduate studies at Stanford, and did very well there - GW had adequately challenged and prepared her. Also, her GW classes were usually small, and her professors were engaged with their students as well as currently active in their fields. If you are accepted to a 'first tier' school, and they offer you no money, check out GW, take a tour, and find out what it will really cost.

  • Willbel on January 02, 2013 11:38 AM:

    @ JMS,

    What a wonderfully uplifting story. I love happy endings.

    Too bad that the article itself is so negative, and often inaccurate about GWU. Unfortunately, I lack the time to write a lengthy rebuttle, but others have done so. However, in short, I have two degrees from GWU and have never regretted going there. Others who are thinking of going to GWU can be assured that they will be getting a excellent education, and have oportunities that other "great" institutions of higher learning can only dream of providing.

  • Karl on July 17, 2013 1:28 PM:

    Pretty interesting stuff for an Australian student going on exchange to GWU in 2014. A similar thing is happening over here as well in terms of the increased emphasis on prestige except the building projects are being paid for by high tuition fees generated from international students (mainly Asia) - precisely the same market the uni is targeting in its advertising and its construction of new housing.