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Serving the GW Community since 1904

The GW Hatchet

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By Max Porter, Contributing News Editor • February 15, 2024

Wrighton can fix financial aid at GW

Newly minted interim University President Mark Wrighton has signaled that one of his priorities will be to improve GW’s financial aid office – a necessity amid many students’ pandemic-era financial insecurity.

As an interim president, his only major mandate is to right the ship and keep the University in a steady state until a permanent successor can be appointed. This puts Wrighton in a unique position to spearhead efforts to make the University’s existing programs and policies work better until they can be more dramatically overhauled – and the Office of Student Financial Assistance is a perfect place to start.

From a purely operational standpoint, GW’s financial aid office is frustrating to navigate. Students who are trying to figure out if they can quite literally afford to keep attending GW are often stuck frantically following up or getting the run-around from overworked staff. Students are often in the dark about how much aid they will be receiving until the last-possible minute.

This is best illustrated by the disastrous rollout of updated aid packages in fall 2020, when nearly 5,000 students suddenly had their aid packages changed as the University shifted to online operations for the semester. Students were left panicking, and officials were left to frantically hold town halls clarifying that for most students, their out-of-pocket costs would not change. This was an unforced crisis at the time, but it is representative of how opaque, uncommunicative and unhelpful the financial aid office can be. Trying to figure out whether you can keep going to college is an existential, all-consuming and deeply emotional experience – one made no easier by the financial aid office a lot of the time.

Jenna Baer | Cartoonist

Fortunately, as of late, GW seems to be improving its public communication, most notably the University’s response to the Omicron-driven surge in coronavirus cases. If Wrighton’s administration can follow through on making the financial aid office work better and pair that with the kind of improvement in communication the University displayed when it came to Omicron, that would go a long way to making students’ lives easier.

The pandemic hit GW’s pocketbook hard, and overarching fundraising legwork is hard to do until there is a University-wide strategic plan in place. But that is not a good excuse for complacency by GW. The University did roll out a “focused initiative” to bolster opportunities for Pell-eligible students, and it is excellent to see that Wrighton has pledged to see these efforts through. But not all students in financial need are Pell-eligible, and for those who are, Pell grants are seldom enough on their own. The maximum Pell grant is just shy of $6,500 per academic year – which, considering that the total cost of attendance at GW is nearly $80,000, is often a drop in the bucket unless paired with other sources of aid.

The University’s decision to hold off on a more comprehensive fundraising campaign until there is a strategic plan in place and then barely take any specific action to fill the gap in the meantime is shortsighted. The pandemic layered additional financial stress on top of an already-burdened student population. Even before COVID-19, nearly half of students received need-based financial aid, and more than a third had taken out student loans. Meanwhile, a strategic plan for the University could take nearly two years to develop – which is far too long to go without more robust efforts to help students.

Wrighton doesn’t have to wait until there’s a new strategic plan to undertake more efforts at helping students financially – in fact, he might no longer be president once there is a new strategic plan. There is no reason why the University cannot step up traditional and existing fundraising efforts, like beseeching alumni for donations, between now and the establishment of a more cogent plan.

The fact that emergency aid for students from federal pandemic aid legislation, like the $9 million GW received from the CARES Act, ran out so quickly should be indicative of the acute need for more awards, scholarships and funds for students who need financial support. Even if these efforts are piecemeal, like establishing a fuller smorgasbord of various tuition awards and college-specific funds for students who meet certain criteria, it’s certainly better than nothing – and besides, GW students are unfortunately pretty familiar with navigating a complex and fragmented financial aid system.

In his first few weeks in office, Wrighton has built up well-deserved goodwill from students, faculty and the GW community by being accessible and forward-looking. To keep that going, he should make getting GW’s financial aid efforts unstuck a key priority.

The editorial board consists of Hatchet staff members and operates separately from the newsroom. This week’s staff editorial was written by opinions editor Andrew Sugrue and contributing opinions editor Shreeya Aranake based on discussions with culture editor Anna Boone, contributing sports editor Nuria Diaz, design editor Grace Miller and copy editor Jaden DiMauro.

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