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GWU aims to get smaller and better. Will that mean cuts to faculty and financial aid?

George Washington University has about 28,000 students, counting graduate, undergraduate, online and professional programs. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

By many measures, George Washington University looks healthy. The largest school in the nation’s capital boasts growing enrollment, solid finances, expanding research prowess and robust demand for programs such as politics and international affairs.

Yet GWU is taking a surprising and radical step that has prompted deep faculty anxiety: It is choosing to shrink — a lot.

Over the next five years, the private university just west of the White House aims to slash the undergraduate population of its D.C. campuses 20 percent. That would mean 2,100 fewer students, less tuition revenue and tough choices on whether to reduce faculty and financial aid or find other ways to balance the budget.

Many colleges have scrambled in recent times to cope with falling enrollment amiddemographic upheaval. GWU provides the rare case of a school announcing in advance, as a public strategy, that it wants to get smaller.

GWU President Thomas J. LeBlanc, in his third year, said 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 said. Now is the time, he said, for a pivot.

“We are poised to take proactive and bold action,” he said in a campus speech Thursday.

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.

“I don’t think I should be ruling out anything in the planning process,” he told The Washington Post in a recent interview.

Skepticism is building among faculty who fear changes will curtail access to a university that has sought mightily in recent years to ditch a reputation it had acquired as a high-priced destination catering to the wealthy. Some wonder how and why LeBlanc chose a 20 percent enrollment cut instead of a smaller target.

“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. “That’s the image GW has been fighting.”

Tuition, fees, room and board this year total more than $71,000. Starting next year, the university is abandoning a long-standing policy of guaranteeing incoming students a fixed tuition rate until they graduate.

The GW Hatchet student news outlet wrote in an editorial this month that the university must explain how the new tuition policy will affect prospective students.

“For many students considering where to attend college, price is the biggest determinant,” the editorial said. “For middle-class families that might not be eligible for much financial aid, the prospect of steadily rising tuition across four years could be daunting.”

What GWU called a plan to “right-size,” disclosed on July 9, startled many in higher education. Experts say it is not unheard of for a major university to choose to shrink, but the scope of GWU’s move was highly unusual.

Among about 60 private universities with high research activity, most were stable or grew from 2013 to 2018. Only a few shed as much as a tenth of their undergraduates in that time, federal data show. Among them were Emory, Catholic and Howard universities.

Schools throughout the country are grappling with a volatile market. Public Virginia Tech, with a surprise overflow of more than 1,000 freshmen, turned hotels into makeshift dormitories this summer to squeeze them in. But private Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, Ithaca College in New York and numerous others fell short of targets.

Bucknell President John Bravman said his school was caught off guard when the usual stream of enrollment commitments dried up a few days before the May 1 deadline. “The spigot just turned off,” he said this month at a meeting of college presidents in Washington.

Student shortages often pose an existential threat. “The vast majority of colleges don’t worry about selectivity,” Brian C. Rosenberg, president of Macalester College in Minnesota, said at the gathering. “They worry about filling their classes.”

Amid that uncertainty, analysts say GWU could be positioning itself to weather ups and downs in the market.

“They’re making a strategic choice from a position of strength, answering the question, ‘What size do we want to be?’ ” said Dennis M. Gephardt, an analyst with the bond credit rating business Moody’s Investors Service. “They’re not doing it suddenly. They’re doing it gradually.”

Founded in 1821, GWU has rising ambition as it nears its bicentennial.

With about 28,000 students — counting graduate, undergraduate, online and professional programs — GWU is nearly 50 percent larger than Georgetown University. The Jesuit neighbor, a little more than a mile away, has 19,000 students.

GWU ranks 70th on the U.S. News & World Report list of national universities, tied with Clemson and Texas A&M universities and the University of Minnesota. Its Foggy Bottom campus, a bustling academic hub near the State Department and World Bank, makes GWU a magnet for scholars in public policy and social sciences. In that respect, it resembles in some ways the profile of higher-ranked Georgetown.

But in recent years GWU has enlarged its footprint in science and engineering to compete with private urban research centers such as Boston University, the University of Southern California and the University of Miami — where LeBlanc, a computer scientist, worked until GWU hired him in 2017.

At the same time, GWU has sought to draw more students of color and from low- to moderate-income families. In 2015, the university dropped a requirement for ACT or SAT scores, becoming one of the most prominent universities to go test-optional. Officials depicted the shift as a way to broaden outreach to underrepresented groups.

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The share of undergraduates at GWU who are Hispanic rose to 10 percent in fall 2018, federal data show, up from 7 percent five years earlier. There were also modest gains among Asian American, multiracial and international students. The African American share remained unchanged at 7 percent.

The share with enough financial need to qualify for federal Pell grants was about 14 percent in 2017-2018 — little changed from recent past years.

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

LeBlanc said he has heard repeatedly from students and alumni about courses that fill up, housing that needs renovation — especially 1,100-bed, nine-story Thurston Hall — and basic services that are uneven.

“We want to be preeminent,” he said, “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.”

The fix, he said, must include a lower undergraduate head count. He cited a famously exclusive university to underscore the point. “Harvard’s in the quality business,” LeBlanc said. “They’re not in the quantity business. GW should be in the quality business, too.”

Sarah Roach, editor in chief of the GW Hatchet, said she has heard occasional student complaints about service delays at the student health center or financial aid office. Last year, she recalled, a larger-than-expected freshman class forced a housing scramble. But Roach, 20, a junior from Massachusetts, said she has not observed a major revolt over university services. Many students seem more animated, she said, about whether the university should change its athletic nickname — the Colonials — than whether it should get smaller. “I’ve heard no conversations about the reduction in enrollment,” she said.

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 the District. He said he wants to bring the total to 8,400.

In the past five years, LeBlanc said, 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, he 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.

Sylvia Marotta-Walters, a counseling psychologist who chairs the Faculty Senate’s executive committee, said it is “a smart move to create the community that you want purposefully rather than to just allow it to grow with no purpose in mind.”

Others worry the changes will reshape a school reliant on tuition revenue.

“A lot of us are nervous, especially those of us in the humanities,” said Katrin Schultheiss, who chairs the history department. She said faculty are sympathetic to trimming enrollment, if that means smaller classes and better student service. But she said the plan for a 20 percent cut could take a deep bite out of revenue. Reducing financial aid in a significant way, she said, “would have a terrible effect on the student body.”

Steven Knapp, LeBlanc’s predecessor, who remains on the faculty, sought during his decade as president to make GWU more accessible to a wider range of students.

“My successor is in the best position to say how his administration plans to pay for a reduction in undergraduate enrollment,” Knapp said, “but I trust that it continues to share the commitment to diversity, affordability and student success that guided our efforts during the years of my administration.”

About half of GWU students receive aid to address financial need. Others receive merit scholarships that are not tied to family wealth or income. On average, these grants and scholarships provide a discount of about 42 percent from the sticker price for undergraduate tuition and fees. LeBlanc indicated he is considering a reduction of that discount rate. “One of the variables we should look into,” he said.

LeBlanc dismissed a suggestion that his motive is to engineer a climb in national rankings.

“We are in a position where we have the luxury of time to think carefully about what kind of university we want to be,” he said. “We’re not responding to an external crisis where overnight all the applications nationally collapsed. We’re not responding to anything other than our desire to be better and to provide a better experience to our students.”

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