From the continuing education model
The Prestige Racket
In the summer of 1961, a twenty-two-year-old college graduate from rural Nevada packed up his young family and moved to Washington, D.C. He took a job working nights as a U.S. Capitol policeman while by day he studied for a law degree in Foggy Bottom, at a local commuter school by the name of George Washington University.
Foggy Bottom in those days was an unfashionable neighborhood of State Department office buildings, apartment blocks, decrepit townhouses, bodegas, and parking lots. GW’s campus was an unlovely spread of mostly concrete structures frequented by students who sat for classes and then returned to their lives and apartments off-campus. They came because the school offered an education that was convenient, affordable, and thoroughly adequate to the needs of, say, a Department of Agriculture employee looking to secure a pay raise with a new degree, or a Maryland housewife going back to college once her kids were out of the house.
Because Washington has always been a city full of busy people anxious to advance but tied to their jobs, the school saw a number of up-and-coming D.C. notables pass quietly through its doors. Colin Powell got his MBA there while serving as a White House fellow; J. Edgar Hoover studied law while working at the Library of Congress; and Jacqueline Bouvier (later Mrs. John F. Kennedy) finished her bachelor’s in French literature there, four miles away from her mother’s house in McLean, while taking photographs for the Washington Times-Herald.
The school, in other words, was no Georgetown—GW’s highbrow neighbor up the Potomac—but it filled a valuable niche and helped advance the careers of some prominent public servants. That young Nevadan police officer’s time at GW, for instance, paid off pretty well in the long run. Just four years after he finished his degree and returned home to serve as a city attorney, he was elected to the Nevada state assembly. Eighteen years later Nevada elected him to the U.S. Senate; twenty years after that, he became the body’s majority leader. His name is Harry Reid.
If Reid were starting his career today, however, he probably couldn’t afford a GW law degree on a policeman’s salary. Today George Washington, like many “up-and-coming” second-tier schools—American University, New York University—is ruinously expensive. After decades of offering a low-cost education, GW took a sharp turn upmarket in the late 1980s under the presidency of Stephen Joel Trachtenberg. The university went on a high-class building spree, financed by a dizzying series of tuition increases. When Trachtenberg took office, undergraduate tuition was $14,000—below average for a private, four-year college. By the time he left in 2007, it had mushroomed to $39,000 a year (or, including fees and room and board, a whopping $50,000)—making GW the most expensive school in the United States.