On a weekday night, downtown Washington is quiet but for the music blasting out of Cities, a club on 19th Street. The bar is packed with college students, some of whom paid $600 to $1,000 to reserve a table with bottle service of premium vodka and champagne. Many are from nearby George Washington University, which, six years after its tuition clocked in as the most expensive in the country, has acquired an unwelcome image as a magnet school for East Coast wealth.

Party promoter Alex Waxenberg, 21, says that, around town, students from GW are known for dropping the most cash at clubs.

A slightly tipsy senior from New Jersey surveys the preppy guys in chinos and girls tottering on four-inch heels. “The number one thing that makes you popular at GW is money,” he confides. “How else are you going to be able to go out and have fun? You have to be rich.”

Whether it’s deserved or not, fair or not, GW seems stuck with a “Great Gatsby” reputation. In the New York Times recently, the Foggy Bottom school of 25,000 was dismissed by a former student as a “giant party school with a bunch of rich kids.”

Although the swipe was made by a party photographer who attended temporarily,it could not have been welcome attention for GW’s administration, during a year when the school is struggling with fallout from a rankings scandal and the administration has launched a high-profile campaign to get its own message out.

After two decades of expansion and tuition hikes, the university is trying to reposition itself as an academic powerhouse and an internationally recognized research institution. But whether the school can elevate itself and move beyond this unwanted stereotype remains to be seen.

The divide

Nationwide, college tuitions have risen faster than the inflation rate, student loan debt has topped $1 trillion, and high youth unemployment has sparked fresh debate over the value of a four year degree.

In the past decade, GW hiked tuition to record levels, built luxury dorms and added amenities that transformed it from a no-frills commuter school to a nationally known institution. For this, its bombastic president emeritus, Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, was recently dubbed “The High Priest of Runaway College Inflation” by the Atlantic.

“The cost of excellence is expensive,” says Trachtenberg, who was president from 1988 to 2007 and drove the epic transformation.

It worked. Applications have skyrocketed — increasing by nearly a third in a decade — and the university has grown far more selective. But Trachtenberg’s strategy of using a well-appointed campus to lure students of means to subsidize others with excellent transcripts had an unintended consequence. An atmosphere of conspicuous consumption blossomed, as well as a marked class divide, students and parents say.

“The stereotype is rich white kids and rich international kids who are spoiled and privileged,” a freshman named Sarah wrote on the college review Web site Unigo.com. “Almost overwhelmingly accurate.”

Last spring, a Tumblr on cars of GW — with photos of luxury automobiles on campus, including a rare Mercedes SLR 722 S, two Porsches and a Bentley — went viral, though it was unclear whether the cars belonged to students.

A fashion blog has snapped more than one student carrying a $1,800 Chloé handbag, and $900 "Neverfull" Louis Vuitton tote bags are so widely seen they have become a campus joke.

“Absolutely the divide is there,” said Margie Del Castillo, 31, an Arlington graduate student in women’s studies. “It comes up a lot in class.”

She recalled listening to one classmate recount the “weird tension” he feels attending a school where it is assumed he is from means rather than his modest origins in West Virginia.

“I’m not going to deny we have a lot of students that come from wealthy families, but we are increasingly trying to diversify, and I think we have been diversifying compared to where we were 10 years ago,” said current GW President Steven Knapp, a former provost from Johns Hopkins University.

Knapp has created an office of diversity and inclusion and says the admissions staff has widened its recruiting efforts to more students from outside the Northeast and from overseas. Four years ago, Knapp spearheaded formation of a new scholarship fund that is now worth $71 million.

“We want to make sure we have enough student aid so we are not just recruiting a small slice of the public, but we’re recruiting across all cultural and economic boundaries,” Knapp said. “Because, again, it’s really important, I think, for people that come for the college education that they don’t just interact with people who come from their own background.”

About 55 percent of GW students receive need-based aid, but its tuition is so high experts say that’s not the best barometer of a student body’s economic diversity — as many middle- and even upper-middle-class students get institutional aid. A better marker is the percentage of students receiving federally funded Pell grants. That number is 14 percent, less than half the national average but on par with nearby institutions such as Georgetown and American universities.

Knapp said this academic year is a pivotal one for the school, which launched a high-profile rebranding campaign in the fall and a 10-year vision plan that could cost more than $110 million.

The hoped-for expansion would include creating more vigorous liberal arts requirements and a science, technology, engineering and math academy for undergraduates, and adding 30 to 50 scholarships for graduate students and 50 to 100 new faculty members.

The school held a splashy kickoff for its new messaging campaign, where Knapp unveiled a “forward-looking” logo: a likeness of George Washington inspired by a bust at Mount Vernon.

“We’re taking ... a fresh look at the way we present ourselves to the world,” Knapp said, to applause. The new image, he said, “connects us to our aspirations to become simply the most powerful and influential research university in ... the world.”

Later, in his office overlooking Foggy Bottom, he pointed out a giant hole on 23rd Street that will become a $275 million science and engineering building, the flagship for the expansion expected to open in 2014. He sees the campus — just blocks from the White House and the State Department — as an “extraordinary strategic location” to expand the school’s research and public policy profile.

If you take a walking tour of the campus, you see the signs of upwardly mobile aspirations. The business school’s $56 million Duqués Hall has a Capital Markets Room with 60-inch plasma screens, stock tickers and student trading stations. The Ivory Tower, a dorm, opened in 2004 with private bathrooms and full kitchens so luxurious it made the Princeton Review’s list of “Dorms Like Palaces.”

Then there’s the Avenue, a multimillion-dollar complex of a high-end office and apartment building and restaurants that rose in 2011 just south of Washington Circle. Trachtenberg calls it the university’s “Champs-Elysees.” The school leased the land to the developer in a deal that brings in an estimated $9 million annually.

One recent gray afternoon, the tables at the outdoor cafes there were full, and at the Whole Foods, dozens of GW students lined up to purchase sushi and other fare with their GWorld ID cards. Students lounged on the rooftop deck at the Residences on the Avenue, a luxury apartment building with some of the highest rents in the city.

When the Avenue opened two years ago, its management company had hoped to market the place — with a marble lobby, concierge and sweeping views of the Washington Monument and Potomac River — to young professionals, even instituting quiet hours to discourage students.

They were banking on parents being unlikely to pony up an average $3,900-a-month rent for their kid’s college living quarters. They were wrong. The management company won’t say how many residents are college students, but residents say dozens live in the 300 or so apartments. Reviewers on Yelp complain about parties and noise.

By last spring, “it was becoming dormy,” said Katie Ross, 22, a journalism major and the daughter of two New York lawyers who “loves” her studio apartment and her school. “One night there was vomit in the elevator.”

‘Striver schools

Academics say GW is not alone among second-tier institutions that have engaged in high-dollar expansion and tuition hikes to compete for better students, faculty and rankings. In a story last year titled “The college-cost calamity,” the Economist magazine detailed how long-term debt is on the rise at American schools, describing a new library built by the University of Chicago “where the books are cleverly retrieved by robots.”

Peter Sacks, author of Tearing Down the Gates: Confronting the Class Divide in American Education,” says the problem is that too many schools are trying to lure academically elite students, abandoning their role as community institutions for students of modest means who live nearby. He calls them “striver schools.”

“They’re striving to become a big name. They want a national reputation, with students applying from all over the country and their share of foreign students whose parents are wealthy enough to pay full tuition price,” Sacks explained.

“They tend to try to sort of bet the store on raising the rankings in U.S. News & World Report,” he went on. “But the losers are the ones who have spent all this money, but nothing changes and the rankings stay the same.”

For all the millions spent, GW has not been able to advance as much as it hoped in the rankings. Before its rankings were revoked last fall, the university was No. 51 on U.S. News’s list of the country’s best colleges — the same as 2004. Then the administration learned that its admissions staff had been overstating the high school class ranking of incoming freshmen for a decade, prompting U.S. News to drop the school’s ranking until next year.

The rankings controversy sparked widespread anger and renewed debate about how much GW degrees are worth. The woman in charge of the office responsible for the calculating errors retired.

“They want everyone to believe what a good school this is, but there’s a lot of work that needs to be done,” said Matt Goodman, 24, a graduate student in Latin American studies, curled up on a bench in Kogan Plaza on campus. Not long ago, outmoded buildings in this grassy space were torn down to make way for walkways and a tempietto modeled on one at Columbia University.

Others give the administration credit for holding down tuition increases and trying to change the culture.

“They’re definitely trying to change the stereotype — with somewhat halting progress,” said Patrick Kennedy, 21, a junior from Clearwater, Fla., who has served on both the local Foggy Bottom citizens and student associations.

Knapp said he wanted to focus on the affordability of GW “from the day I arrived. We had gotten a reputation as being an expensive school.” He formed an innovation task force that has identified in $50 million in savings. And the university has tried to keep tuition increases around the level of inflation for the past six years.

This year freshmen paid $56,660 for tuition, room and board and fees, roughly equal that of Georgetown University ($56,682) and only slightly above the $53,455 of American University. (At GW, freshmen pay a fixed-price tuition that stays the same throughout their tenure.)

“We’re really making an effort here to make tuition more affordable,” Knapp said.

Making choices

Because of rising tuition, advocates of higher education say it is becoming more difficult for middle- and working-class students to attend college. In two decades, there has been “a fairly steady increase in the proportion of entering freshmen that come from privileged backgrounds,” said Thomas J. Espenshade, a professor of sociology at Princeton University who has studied admissions data.

Trachtenberg says the wealthy students at GW who are paying full tuition help supplement the ones who aren’t, and for those who simply can’t swing the tuition, “there’s no sin in going to another institution. I would like to drive a Ferrari, but I can’t.”

Despite his blunt assessment, Trachtenberg in his tenure created a full-ride scholarship program for 148 District students so far.

Tori Guy, 20, was a freshman at GW when her dad lost his job. Though the family could barely pay anything toward her tuition, the university let her attend for four semesters.Guy eventually had to return home to Ohio and enroll in far-cheaper Cleveland State.

“We were taught that the American dream is based on how hard you work, not the cards you had drawn,” Guy says. “That rag-to-riches thing is more difficult to realize than you would imagine.”

She misses the excitement of being in the nation’s capital but not the divide that separated her from many of her classmates.

“If I had gone to Ohio State, I would have been like everybody else; I’d have a beer at a frat house,” she says. “At GW, the fraternity houses rent out clubs for their parties.”

Getting in

Back at college night at Cities, Eddie the doorman is pushing back a complaining line of young women and men. The party is “18-plus” — meaning students as young as 18 can attend, as long as the underage don’t drink.

Nicollette Slotkin, a freshman from Beverly Hills, is waiting in line wearing a black mini-dress and diamond Chanel necklace and toting a Chanel bag. She’s a self-described “West Coast princess” who came east to George Washington for the chic urban campus and the well-regarded business school.

Her roommate, Regan Nelson, an ethereal belle from New Orleans, has already made it inside the club. Finally, Slotkin makes her way past the first doorman. She’s in!

“It’s so much fun!” she says, her face wreathed in a smile.

Near the dance floor, two groups of students are in a bottle war — each side vying to drink the most bottles of $160 Veuve Clicquot champagne. Kids are hanging on the rafters. The DJ queues up a song by the band fun.: “Tonight we are young. So let’s set the world on fire. ...

Annie Gowen is a Washington Post staff writer.

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