An 'Elite' Dilemma

George Washington University plans to direct financial aid toward continuing students who may be struggling to pay high tuition bills, rather than bolstering merit-based aid to recruit academically “elite” students that some faculty members contend are in decline on campus.

October 29, 2008

George Washington University plans to direct financial aid toward continuing students who may be struggling to pay high tuition bills, rather than bolstering merit-based aid to recruit academically “elite” students that some faculty members contend are in decline on campus.

In a letter sent to Faculty Senate members in this month, a George Washington administrator expressed concern that enrollment at the high-priced private institution may decline if the university doesn’t increase awards for existing students who now have greater financial need. As such, it’s not “the right time” to improve financial aid packages for new students with higher test scores, according to Robert Chernak, senior vice president for student and academic support services. “The turmoil in the financial and credit markets we are now witnessing places all of us on notice about the possible consequences for enrollment stability here at GW,” Chernak wrote.

“… In this light, it may not be the right time to invest additional student aid resources of any magnitude to achieve better performance within limited and select qualitative measures such as National Merit finalists when a much more comprehensive plan to meet broader and sustainable university enrollment objectives is mandated by current circumstances.”

Just under 60 percent of students receive some form of financial aid at George Washington, where the estimated annual cost of attendance exceeds $50,000.

Chernak’s letter was first reported on by the GW Hatchet, the university’s student newspaper.

The letter was distributed to Faculty Senate members, but addressed to Donald Parsons, an economics professor. Parsons issued a report this summer entitled The Decline of Elite Freshmen Enrollments at George Washington University, which noted a sharp decrease in the number of National Merit Scholars attending the university, coupled with continual enrollment declines in the honors program.

While Parsons describes the George Washington student population as “very good” academically, he has pushed the university to actively pursue a handful of students each year who are “very, very elite."

“What we’re talking about here is kind of the parsley on the potato crowd, as opposed to the core,” he said. “We get very good students, but like a lot of places we’ve imagined that it adds to the classroom zest [to have] Rhodes Scholarships and this kind of thing.”

Declines in Honors Students, Merit Scholars

Expressing concern about the lack of "elite" students at George Washington, Parsons points to declining participation in the university’s Honors college. The program’s current goal is 125 students, which is a 50 percent reduction from the “not-too-distant past when Honors scholars were more generously funded,” Parsons notes. And the university has still fallen short of the 125-student target in recent years, enrolling just 85 honors students in 2006 and 90 students in 2007.

Parsons’ report also laments a decline in the number of National Merit scholars, who are chosen based on PSAT scores. George Washington University had 11 such students in 2007, a 65 percent decline from 2005 when the university hosted 31 merit scholars.

In 2007, all 11 of the merit scholars who enrolled at George Washington were sponsored with scholarships by the university. There is some skepticism in academe about whether bolstering merit scholar numbers by offering sponsorships truly indicates progress. Some of the nation’s highest ranked public and private institutions – including Harvard University and the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor – don’t offer sponsorships at all, relying instead on merit scholars to select them based on academic reputation.

Furthermore, Parsons pushes for greater spending on merit-based aid opens the door to critics who suggest colleges should be doing just the opposite. Parsons says he’s fully aware that there’s opposition to building up merit aid, but says he views recruiting strategies differently than many in academe.

“That’s the difference between economists and the rest of the world,” he said. “It’s called a market for elite students, and you might want to buy some, you might not.”

George Washington University made a conscious move to steer more money toward need-based aid in 2007. According to data supplied to Parsons by the university’s admissions office, average freshman need-based awards increased to about $23,279 in 2007, up $1,708 from 2005. Over the same period, merit-based awards for freshmen dropped by $5,572 to $14,686.

Reducing Student Debt is Stated Goal

George Washington's financial aid strategy is in part driven by changes officials have noticed in the applicant pool. The university's admissions office has noted recent declines, for instance, in students’ expected family contributions, a fact that appears partly attributable to the faltering economy, according to Chernak. The average expected contribution, which is calculated in part by federal financial aid applications, was $31,000 this year, down from $34,000 last year, he said.

In April, Chernak sent an e-mail to Parsons and several other faculty members, noting that the university’s goal is to decrease the student debt burden. The average four-year debt burden for students was $29,000 last year, and George Washington aims to decrease that to $20,000, Chernak said.

In the e-mail, Chernak acknowledged that the university could likely improve recruitment of more qualified students if pressures weren’t so great to reduce student debt.

“We could most probably do better than the recent past three year performance would indicate among as you reference our ‘elite students,’ but the cost of doing so in student aid dollars would leave insufficient funds to meet the more global enrollment and budget goals of the university,” Chernak wrote.

Speaking bluntly in an interview last week, Chernak suggested the university risks going “broke” if it raises academic standards.

“What good is it if you increase the quality of the class by 100 SAT points and you only have 100 freshmen?” he said. “You get great quality and you’re broke.”


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