George Washington University
George Washington University's Foggy Bottom campus in Washington, D.C.

George Washington University wants to cut undergraduate numbers by 20%

Sept. 13, 2019
University president says reducing the undergraduate population on its Washington, D.C., campuses would improve the academic, residential and social experience for students.

George Washington University says it plans to reduce the undergraduate population on its Washington, D.C., campuses by 20 percent.

The Washington Post reports that would result in 2,100 fewer students, less tuition revenue and possibly difficult choices on whether to reduce faculty and financial aid or find other ways to balance the budget.

George Washington President Thomas J. LeBlanc, in his third year, says he wants to improve the academic, residential and social experience for students who too often encounter obstacles in university services. He also wants to expand programs in science, technology, engineering and math. The board of trustees has endorsed the enrollment shift, LeBlanc says.

“We are poised to take proactive and bold action,” he says.

LeBlanc declined to rule out faculty layoffs or other significant steps to reduce expenditures. He said those issues will be hashed out in consultation with faculty, trustees and others in the development of a strategic plan.

Some faculty fear changes will curtail access to a university that has sought in recent years to lose a reputation it had acquired as a high-priced destination catering to the wealthy.

“How do we make up for the lost revenue?” asked Harald W. Griesshammer, an associate professor of physics. Rising tuition, coupled with rollbacks in financial aid, would make the university less racially and economically diverse, he said.

Tuition, fees, room and board this year at George Washington amount to more than $71,000. It has about 28,000 students — counting graduate, undergraduate, online and professional programs. Federal data show the university had about 12,500 undergraduates last fall, 21 percent more than five years earlier.

But those figures include online students and those at a science and technology campus in Ashburn, Va., home to a school of nursing.

For the enrollment cut, LeBlanc is focusing on the Foggy Bottom and Mount Vernon campuses that serve about 10,500 undergraduates in Washington, D.C.. He says he wants to bring the total to 8,400.

Experts say it is not unheard of for a major university to choose to shrink, but the scope of George Washington's move was highly unusual.

The new enrollment strategy arose, LeBlanc says, through conversations about how students are served.

The university has heard repeatedly from students and alumni about courses that fill up, housing that needs renovation and basic services that are uneven

“We want to be preeminent,” LeBlanc says, “and we want to be preeminent in not only the faculty experience here, but the student experience here, the alumni experience, the parent experience. We’re going to work on all those things. So when I see something that isn’t up to the preeminent standard, I think we ought to fix it.”

In the past five years the university added about 1,000 undergraduates through a merger with a local art college, improved student retention and a push for revenue to offset a temporary decline in graduate enrollment.

Now, LeBlanc wants to roll back twice that number, while also expanding the share who major in science, technology, engineering and math fields. About 19 percent major in those fields (often as a double major); LeBlanc’s goal is 30 percent.

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