In the Heart of the Heart of the Most Expensive

Three of them come to mind right away, three sensitive, eager, smart literary scholars in the making in my literature classes at George Washington, the world's most expensive university.


February 11, 2008

Three of them come to mind right away, three sensitive, eager, smart literary scholars in the making in my literature classes at George Washington, the world's most expensive university.

One, from an Asian/Hispanic family near Los Angeles, took to James Joyce's Ulysses with a passion, absolutely unintimidated by it, loving its wild flights of consciousness, getting it. Another was a genius who'd transcended working class Akron, an aesthete I watched unfold into one of the keenest readers of novels I'd ever encountered. The third was naive and unlearned but had it, that amazing quality of retention and energy and focus I knew would make him, after four years of liberal arts education, an exciting and discerning intellect.

All left GW after their freshman year. One transferred to the University of Colorado, his state campus; the Californian went to one of the fine public campuses in that state. And the guy from Akron went to Columbia -- by no means a cheap school, as he explained to UD, but worth more than GW in terms of quality.

As the news media pays more and more attention to UD's home campus because it's distinguished by being the most expensive university in the world - as that phrase, most expensive, is more and more invoked in connection with it, in article after article, including one in this morning's Inside Higher Ed - UD thinks it's important for her to point out, boots on the ground, just what's wrong with carrying this particular marker.

She's begun with the obvious. All of these exceptional students had exceptional financial support from GW. But even with plenty of scholarship money, they and their parents always worried about how they'd pay the remainder of the costs. "My father's taken a second job," one of them told UD. "He's working nights lecturing in accounting at a community college to pay my bills. It makes me feel guilty." GW is so expensive that even when it rightly identifies and supports the best applicants, it still loses a bunch of them.

All of these students talked to UD not only about raw costs, but about how demoralizing they found it, amid their own struggles, to witness a subset of students at GW whose wealth made them arrogant.

The now-notorious most-expensive designation means that students and their parents rightly expect a high level of instruction. Yet like most schools -- like all schools -- GW struggles with strong and weak departments and programs. Our freshman writing program has long been a work in progress, and isn't, at the moment, very good. We offer unserious majors, like Creative Writing. We have our share of professors who show movies every day, or read robotically from PowerPoint slides, or cancel lots of classes. These sorts of things exist everywhere, but when your campus is the most expensive, you can be sure that people will wonder why they exist at yours.

People will also wonder why, when you're the most expensive university in the world, your administrative salaries are so big -- indeed, why compensation packages may be, as was the case with GW's last president, morbidly obese. No one wants to feel like a sucker, as though her money's going to prop up egos.

Eventually people will ask themselves whether a school like GW is rather like the Most-Photographed Barn in the World, a tourist attraction featured in Don DeLillo's novel, White Noise.

People flock to take pictures of the barn because they've been told it's the most-photographed; and yet the barn has no particular distinguishing features. "They're photographing," explains a local professor, "an aura."


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