A former college president who nearly tripled tuition in 20 years explains why elite schools feel the need to raise and spend so much money
Stephen Joel Trachtenberg understands the prestige war from the inside. When he became president of George Washington University in 1988, tuition was $14,000 -- below average for a private, four-year university, as Washington Monthly reported. When he left in 2007, tuition had skyrocketed to $39,000. During that time, undergraduate applications tripled, the endowment quintupled to $1 billion, SAT scores jumped by 200 points, and the university created five new schools. This essay is adapted from an interview with The Atlantic.
You can buy a pair of jeans at Wal-Mart for $29 and one from Ralph Lauren for $98. While both cover your backside, one comes with a label of status that appeals to some and not to others. Customers -- and let's not forget that students are customers of academic services -- like choices and they usually make selections based on more than one factor, price being only one.
When my son checked into his freshman dorm, there were no lights in his room - nothing on the ceiling, walls or desk. There were two outlets: if you wanted light, Yale required you to bring your own lamp. I thought this took the parable of Plato's Cave a bit too far.
Applicants to GW look for more than overhead lights: they want living and dining choices, places to study and swim, comfortable desks and chairs, and tennis and basketball courts. Yes, they are looking for great professors but they want more than classroom life. The only way to provide more books in the library, more theaters for performances, laboratories for experiments, coffee shops for study breaks is to have the dollars to build and maintain all these things - and dollars come from tuition.