Saxa Politica: Admission based on assets?

October 30, 2014

It’s college admissions season, and Georgetown’s Nov. 1 deadline for early action admissions is just a few days away. Every year—it seems as if on a fixed schedule—the New York Times cranks out a story about a motivated young person who, despite growing up with all the odds stacked well against him, manages to bootstrap his way into Dream University. Last week, they brought us the story of Justus Uwayesu, a Harvard freshman who grew up as an orphan in a Rwandan garbage dump after the country’s civil war.

Beautiful as the piece was, the real story lies in just how unlikely it is for anyone born in less-than-ideal circumstances to graduate from college, let alone from Georgetown. Georgetown is a need-blind institution, which means that it chooses its accepted students irrespective of their ability to pay tuition. But that doesn’t mean very much when, year after year, the same well-heeled prep schools (the kind that stock $65 Vineyard Vines-branded ties in their bookstore) send off hundreds of their progenies to the Hilltop. The university’s top 10 feeder schools for the class of 2017 were all prep schools that cater to an extraordinarily privileged student body. While Georgetown professes a desire to increase the number of lower-income students on its campus through initiatives like the Georgetown Scholarship Program, it’s actually doing very little to fundamentally change its socioeconomic makeup.

But is this representation problem Georgetown’s fault? Some might point to our applicant pool and say that we’re working with what we’ve got. The students who apply to Georgetown mirror those who get admitted, except for the magical “it” factor that the admissions committee decides pushes select applicants into the promised land.

The university is faced with a tricky conundrum, given the fact that America’s rich tend to stay rich—especially when they graduate from a place like Georgetown. The richer the student body, the more tuition dollars flow in, and the more likely the university is guaranteed that future donors will have fat pockets.

Maybe I’m making Georgetown seem like a titanic conflagration of institutional privilege, because we really are doing better than many others. Unlike our neighbor down the road, George Washington, we don’t use binding early-decision admissions—something that has long been derided as a tool for universities to increase the enrollment of wealthy students who don’t have to worry about weighing tuition costs. GW’s early admissions rate for the class of 2018 was 64 percent, and that group of money-is-no-object students provide a fat, consistent lump of cash. Students should be glad we’re not operating like Washington University in St. Louis, where less than 6 percent of undergraduates receive Pell grants, a federal aid program for low-income students. At the same time, it’s not like we’re excelling in that area, given that only 13 percent of students on the Hilltop receive Pell grants, compared to 30 percent at Columbia University.

So what’s a university to do? It’s not as if quadrilingual Rwandan refugees with impeccable academic credentials are banging down the doors to Healy Hall.

There’s no easy solution to the problem, but there are plenty of places where an overhaul could cut hidden costs and, therefore, possibly increase socioeconomic diversity on campus. 

The university charges students $125 for men’s basketball season tickets at the Verizon Center—a supposedly essential part of the Georgetown experience—and while many students shrug the price off, it can be a barrier that prevents low-income students from participating in the tradition. Similarly, same-day admission to this year’s homecoming barbecue cost $25, even for under-21 students. Is it too much to ask for Georgetown to cut the astronomical price of time-honored traditions?

Another problem is something no student can completely avoid—the high cost of textbooks. Too often, students are required to buy multiple expensive books (often written by the professor) and only end up reading small sections of each—sections that could easily be photocopied and put on Blackboard. Georgetown can help fix this problem by overseeing professor’s textbooks assignments more closely and encouraging professors to scan readings for course reserves.

Georgetown is moving in the right direction—but we’re not there yet. For an administration that hoards millions in its endowment but allows 39 percent of students to graduate with an average of $28,035 in debt, mitigating these issues is the least it can do.


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