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What most schools call freshman orientation is a different animal at the George Washington University, the most expensive college in America. There, it’s known as Colonial Inauguration, or just “CI,” a three-day whirlwind of ice cream socials and casino nights.

CI is one of the university’s selling points. When high schoolers tour the campus, the guide from the GW admissions office is likely to include mention of the event among the experiences that set the school apart from its competitors: In addition to the prospect of spotting presidential motorcades and studying at the Lincoln Memorial, you’ll get to enjoy the laser-light show at Colonial Inauguration.

The six-minute-plus neon extravaganza includes the Hippo, GW’s unofficial mascot, bowling, playing tennis, kicking a soccer ball, lifting weights in the fitness center—to the strains of the theme from Star Wars and the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star.”

Willie Castro, a subcontractor for Audio Visual Imagineering, who created the show and has been tweaking it each year for more than a decade, says a show like GW’s costs about $2,500 per minute to produce. Throw in labor costs and other fees, and the university has paid a robust five-figure sum over the years to build a precious campus commodity: tradition. “Nobody seems to be tired of ‘Video Killed the Radio Star,’” says Castro. “Every year I say, ‘You guys don’t want to change it, so you must love that song.’”

(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

The student newspaper, the GW Hatchet, has written exhaustively about Colonial Inauguration and its extravagances, which have included engraved chocolates deposited on the pillows of incoming freshmen. When GW stopped giving out GWopoly board games a few years ago, the Hatchet reported the move saved the college $30,000. An analysis of the wardrobe of the Colonial Cabinet, the elite pack of wild-eyed, hyper students who lead the orientation, found that the crew’s khaki shorts likely cost the university about $4,000 each summer.

“Most colleges view orientation as a simple half-day event where students can buy books and sign waivers. GW, as you will quickly learn, has much more of a ‘Go big or go home’ attitude,” wrote sophomore Diana Kugel in the Hatchet. “While the laser light show may be superfluous, all of the fuss and preparation that goes into CI is effective in its efforts to make newly accepted students feel welcome. And while sometimes GW does overdo it when trying to uphold a certain image, you may as well get used to things being done on a large scale.”

At GW, that realization starts with tuition. Last February, GW announced its tuition and required fees plus room and board would cost $50,630 for this year’s freshmen, the class of 2011. It was like the day a barrel of oil hit $50—everyone saw it coming, but seeing the number on paper was stunning.

“When that word came out, you panic a little,” says Michael O’Leary, senior associate director of GW’s admissions office, who’s among those tasked with promoting the university. “You sit down and scratch your head and say, ‘How are we going to deal with this?’ And then you move forward.”

“[University officials] pointed out that it was the lowest percent increase,” says Hatchet editor Jake Sherman, referring to how this year’s freshmen will pay 3.8 percent more than last year’s freshmen. “But it’s almost been PR suicide for them. It’s pretty unbelievable how they’ve tried to spin it.”

But as public-relations challenges go, record tuition isn’t necessarily the hardest one to explain. That would be why the school ranks much lower on the various surveys that gauge its market value. The latest U.S. News & World Report rankings for “America’s Best Colleges,” for instance, considers GW only 54th in the country. In 2006, it was 52nd.

GW has, however, risen through the ranks of large-land-holders in the District by dint of its legendary expansion. In 1912, GW had a single building in Foggy Bottom, at 20th and G Streets. Now it owns most of a five-block area loosely bordered by Pennsylvania Avenue, 23rd Street, E Street, and 20th Street. Much of the growth has occurred in the past 15 years.

(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

This year, the university decided to take itself to another level. It sought permission to nearly double the size of its campus by building up 2.5 million square feet within its boundaries. In contentious zoning hearings, university officials argued that the allure of GW is tied to its wonderfully situated campus in view of the White House. Neighbors likened the 20-year building plan to plopping an Empire State Building in Foggy Bottom, albeit one spread out to conform to the District’s hallowed height laws. In the end, the school received permission to pursue its expansion, subject to further zoning approvals.

GW also pissed off Foggy Bottom residents when it leased its old hospital site on Pennsylvania Avenue, one of the largest empty tracts of land in the District, to a developer for the next 60 years. Plans include two rental residential towers and a commercial office tower, which is expected to house a law firm. The university won’t say how many millions it is making off the deal, but in “go big or go home” fashion, GW said it plans to build a new science center, dorms, classrooms, and research space with the cash infusion. Through all the expansions, the university has sustained vicious attacks from Foggy Bottom activists and their brethren across town. Whether the venue was a meeting of the local advisory neighborhood commission or a city zoning panel, the complaint was usually the same: The school’s big shots were rapacious land-grabbers determined to turn residential Foggy Bottom into a cul-de-sac.

GW’s thirst for land has become something of a business problem in recent years. In 2003, 25 percent of the assets in the school’s endowment consisted of illiquid property investments off campus. Endowment managers have since reduced that number to 15 percent, the better to maximize the endowment’s utility.

That endowment just passed $1 billion this summer, but it’s paltry for a school with world-class ambitions. Princeton University, No. 1 on the U.S. News survey, has the fifth-largest endowment in the nation at around $13 billion. (This year, tuition plus room and board at the New Jersey Ivy will set you back nearly $44,000.)

GW’s comparatively shallow endowment means that it relies on tuition to meet 80 percent of its daily operating costs. Without that cash coming in, the university says, it would be bankrupt in a year. The problem has outlasted the 19-year tenure of President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, who succeeded Lloyd Hartman Elliott in 1988 and stepped down this July. “If we had a bigger endowment, we’d have more money. And if we had more money, we could, if we chose, lower tuition or give more financial aid,” Trachtenberg says.

Traditionally, alumni help to pad university endowments. But GW’s alumni-giving is currently only at 11 percent, according to GW’s director of media.

“Some of it has to do with having begun alumni giving programs very late in our history. Some of it is because we were, for many years, a commuter school,” says Trachtenberg, whose total compensation in 2004-05 was north of $700,000, placing him among the highest paid university presidents in the country. “I think these things are generational. You have to have somebody come to the university, they have to have a good experience, then they have to graduate, then they have to pay off whatever those loans are that you made to them, then they go on, and they buy their first house, then they get married, then they have children, then they have to pay for the orthodontist, then they have to pay for the car.”

“And they get to a point in their lives where, God willing, they have surplus, and that’s when people start to look around and decide where they’re going to be consequentially philanthropic. Most people start with their houses of worship.”

Trachtenberg believes cash from GW alumni who graduated during the previous era in GW history, the one led by Elliott from ’65 to ’88, will start flowing soon.

“You have to allow these things to germinate, to gestate,” he says.

The unofficial position on GW philanthropy is a bit more jaded. “A lot of people say GW just doesn’t engender this feeling of giving back,” says Hatchet editor Sherman. “What I’ve heard is that people just feel like they come out of this school and they’re drained of everything they have.”

As far as recruiting future alumni, GW competes with big-name schools for upper-echelon students and, to many of them, the university does offer help. Last year, 20 percent of its students received large merit scholarships, which usually pay for about half of the tuition, not including room, board, and fees.

“Nobody cares what the tuition is,” says Trachtenberg, who is now President Emeritus and professor of public service for the college. “Students who pay the full tuition are a small fraction of the student body,” he says.

In fact, more than 60 percent of GW’s undergraduates receive some kind of financial aid, and the school beats all universities in the dollars-per-student it gives in aid, at around $33,000. Shortly after it dropped the $50,000 bombshell, GW announced it would also cut its merit scholarships by a third in favor of need-based aid.

(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

The rest of the students, or, more likely, their parents, simply write a check every semester. “Obviously you’ve got to have a lot of rich students to subsidize the less rich students. GW will officially tell you, of course, that it subsidizes many students, and that’s true. But if you’ve been to GW, you know it’s a culture of wealth,” says Margaret Soltan, an English professor at the college. “All you have to do is walk up and down 21st Street and see all these fancy SUVs and Porsches and realize that they are being driven by 20-year-olds.”

Taylor Carrington, soon to be a freshman majoring in international relations and Spanish, will likely have to hitch a ride with one of her rich classmates. She will be starting GW with an enormous merit scholarship of $20,000 but plans to graduate with debt. Her parents are helping with some of the overflow.

“My parents both have good jobs, and education is one of those things they are willing to spend money on,” says Carrington, who is from Rhode Island. “I know it’s a lot of money, but my parents were like, ‘It’s an education, so it’s OK to spend.’ I felt like a degree from GW is worth that. I felt like I’ll be able to pay it off as soon as I get out of there.”

Carrington is a beneficiary of Trachtenberg’s brand of educational socialism. “It is how we seek justice on behalf of all our students,” he says. “But you see, all our students aren’t identical. And so what we try to do is treat each student as justly and as equitably as we can. And so it’s a little like a Procrustean bed. You know you have a 6-foot person, and you have a 4-foot bed. The choices, it seems to me, are extend the bed by 2 feet or cut 2 feet off the person.”

“Well, what we try to do,” he says, “is extend the bed. And so we have some students who are paying—what you would call if you’re buying a car—the list price. And we have other students who are getting the car for free. And most students are in between A and Z, between Alpha and Omega.”

Three years ago, GW helped pioneer an idea that is catching on at universities around the country. The school promised the Class of 2008 that it would pay $34,000 in tuition a year for as long as they stayed at the university. The graduating Class of 2004 paid $29,000, 16 percent less.

The fixed tuition promise doesn’t apply to the mandatory room, board, and other fees, and housing at GW is just as expensive, if not more so, than living in an apartment building nearby. (Freshmen and sophomores are required to live on campus.) But the pricing scheme does allow students to know how much they will pay for tuition as long as they stay at GW.

The university insists that under this plan, students do not actually pay the highest tuition in the country because while other universities will raise their tuition by different amounts every year, GW’s will stay the same. By this math, GW is only the ninth-most-expensive university in the country.

The university gets there by predicting that expensive schools such as Sarah Lawrence, Amherst, and Colgate—which don’t usually compete for the same students as GW—will raise their tuition by 5.7 percent each year. GW thus concludes that its incoming freshmen will end up paying less in the long term.

This calculation, of course, is open to challenge. Last year, Hatchet opinions editor Kyle Spector argued that schools that actually attract the same sort of students who apply to GW—including NYU and Boston University—would have to raise their tuition by much more than they actually did during the last three years in order to catch up with the price tag at GW.

“On balance, GW is marginally more expensive,” concedes O’Leary. “I say that not discounting that we are the most expensive. You can’t beat around that bush. You can’t dispute a price tag.”

When Trachtenberg arrived, a year at GW cost about $14,520, not including fees or premiums for living in better dorms.

“The mandate was, ‘Let’s move the institution to the next level,’” says O’Leary, who began an entry-level job in the admissions office in 1985, about two years before Trachtenberg took over. “GW was still a pretty sleepy place when I got here—not highly competitive, known nationally but not necessarily recognized.”

Now, GW wholeheartedly embraces the maxim that you need to spend money to make money—and to rise in the all-important U.S. News rankings. “That should be No. 1 on the list of anyone at a university, and you do whatever it takes,” says Nicole Capp, president of the Student Association, which governs all student groups at GW. “Paying money for extra professors, having some more adjunct professors…having Division I teams that are doing spectacular—whatever it takes to build the prestige of the university and provide a better education, you do it.”

Nicole Capp, President of GW’s Student Association (Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

As she ticks off the characteristics of a first-rate university, Capp is sitting at the Potbelly sandwich shop’s outdoor cafe in the Ivory Tower, one of the university’s newest, classiest dorms, where she is living this summer and next school year. The dorm is one of the reasons GW ranks well on at least one list—Princeton Review’s “Dorms Like Palaces.” Ivory Tower’s carpeted two-bedroom suites with living rooms and full kitchens are the norm for the school’s new dormitories, built along with several new dorms after the city mandated that the university house 70 percent of the nearly 10,000 undergraduates on the Foggy Bottom campus.

The J Street Cafe in the Marvin Center, the de facto student union, is at this moment being renovated for the second time in as many years. Last week, workers were dismantling some of the fast-food restaurants constructed there last summer in preparation for replacing them with more self-serve venues, a return of sorts to the traditional college cafeteria the Marvin Center housed decades ago. Students entering the center’s food court are confronted by a lighted model of the Washington Monument that soars from the basement through an atrium. (The actual monument is a short walk away.)

“Our student-union-style thing, the Marvin Center, has gone through more face-lifts than, you know, Cher. And why?” says Chris Correa, a recent graduate who chose GW over NYU.

Changes have also come to Duques Hall, GW’s new business school building, which now features a classroom built to resemble a stock exchange, with a multitude of screens on which students can play stockbroker. Several students describe it as “pretty cool.”

Kaitlin Muench, a rising junior who spent her summer days working as a GW tour guide and nights as a butler at the Kennedy Center, laughs at the swanky flourishes. “We’ve accepted it, and…it’s just a joke to us here. It’s hard to describe it, but the student population understands that we pay a lot of money, but they’re willing to make that sacrifice. While people joke about it, in the end, they’re happy they’re here,” she says.

But generalizations, as students learn in college, are dangerous. Not everyone is happy with the return on a GW investment. After two years at the university, Kevan Duve bolted. He took a year off and transferred to Columbia University, where he will start as a junior next month.

“GW has been run like a business for a long time.…They believe they are offering a product and that they’re going to charge market price,” he says. “I think students at GW get a bad deal, frankly.”

Duve gave up his GW merit scholarship and will end up owing more than if he had stayed in Foggy Bottom, but he believes attending the ninth-ranked school in the country is worth it.

“The things that [GW puts] money in, they put money in so that people are impressed by it, but it doesn’t necessarily equate to a better education for undergraduates. So I thought that I was wasting my money going to GW. It wasn’t that I couldn’t afford it. It just had to do with how my money was being spent.”