The Washington Monthly‘s College Issue, out for weeks but posted just recently online, features a lengthy attack on George Washington University’s “prestige racket”: The tactic of charging exorbitant tuition to fund glitzy buildings and other superficial signals of elite-ness, on the theory that ambitious applicants will equate the high sticker price with a better education, or at least a more marketable degree. In doing so, the magazine charges, GWU has abandoned its formerly proud tradition of helping the city’s working stiffs on their road to advancement—one of whom, Harry Reid, ended up as the majority leader of the Senate. Now, even though only 40 percent of students pay full tuition and subsidize the many who don’t, the average student still graduates from GWU with $31,299 in debt.
This isn’t a new thing. Three years ago, when tuition and fees first hit $50,000 per year, City Paper published a cover story asking whether that figure could possibly be justified (the conclusion: almost certainly not). At this point, it seems like the people who should be asking that question are the students themselves—this is a private university, after all, and they’re the ones who choose to go there. The Monthly is essentially arguing that GWU has pulled off a gigantic con, but a university is only worth what people are willing to pay for it.
And it’s not as if George Washington is the only place to go in D.C. that’s less selective than Georgetown where you can still hold down an internship on the Hill. The Harry Reids of today would be better advised to go to the University of the District of Columbia, which didn’t exist in its current form in the 1960s. It may not have the GWU’s carefully cultivated “cachet”, but for all that money, GWU’s still not even in the top 50 schools nationwide on U.S. News‘ list (which they pretend not to care about). If parents want to pay for it, that’s up to them.