On the Record with President DeGioia: The Full Interview
Connor Jones, the Voice’s editor-in-chief, sat down with University President John J. DeGioia on Tuesday to the most pressing issues on the Hilltop of late. This week’s print edition contained the interview’s highlights. Jones’ full interview with DeGioia, which includes discussion on socioeconomic diversity, free speech, and Jesuit ideals, follows.
CJ: In real terms, the total cost of attendance at Georgetown has risen 22 percent in the past 10 years. In the same time, the average cost of attendance at private four-year colleges and universities nationwide has risen 22 percent. Is curbing the cost of attendance a priority to keeping Georgetown accessible for students of all backgrounds?
DG: There’s an important balance that we engage in responding to the expectations of our students and our families, the needs of our faculty, and the competitive context in which we are situated and then the financial reality that’s affecting many of our families, particularly over these last six years, beginning with the financial crisis in 2008.
We were very intentional about slowing the cost of growth. We’ve had the slowest trajectory for cost increases over these last roughly six years. We had the smallest year-over-year increases for about three years in a row. We were below the national number and these were the smallest growth rates in forty years both nationally in that period and at Georgetown. The impact of that is, well, the bottom line is, we were growing slower nationally, but also against our competitive peer group, which is very important.
The evidence for that is in 2008, we were actually the third most expensive private school in the country. Today, we’re [the] 35th, and that was an intentional strategy on our part. We didn’t believe it was appropriate, recognizing what a number of our families are wrestling with, for us to sustain the kind of growth rates that would have been more historic. Those historic growth rates are driven by the demands we have to meet the expectations of our community, so there’s no day in which a dean, or a department chair, or a student organization, even families, even donors come in here and say, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could just add this to the University portfolio?” And that’s the balance. Sometimes the requests are very appropriate, and we have to figure out how best to do that.
The challenge to remember is that we can compete among the top 25 universities, but we do so with an endowment that’s roughly in the mid-sixties in terms of national ranking. That’s a factor of history, we didn’t really start fundraising at the level of our peer group until the 1980s, so currently at $1.3 billion our endowment. We are very pleased with what we have been able to do in a short period of time and a very generous donor community, but we began very far back relative to the peers that we’re engaged with.
CJ: Do you ever say no?
DG: Oh yeah! We say no most of the time. But that’s not because they aren’t good ideas. We establish certain kinds of priorities, and in our case, our fundamental priorities over these last few years have essentially been we want to ensure that we are providing the opportunity to the very best students from around the country to be here, and we do that through our need-blind financial aid policy. Being able to sustain need-based financial aid has been the highest priority we’ve had as a University for the last 35 years. We implemented that policy when I was an undergraduate. I was a beneficiary of the policy. In 1978 we started it. It cost roughly two million dollars in 1978 to implement the policy. It cost roughly seven million dollars in our next budget, so it’s the single highest priority that we have.
The second highest priority that we have is to have the very best faculty here at the University. That’s what you would expect. That’s what they expect of themselves and each other, and the way that we do that it to ensure that we have a compensation that will allow for that. And then third, we try to ensure that we’ve got the best possible facilities. We want to provide the best possible framework for the student experience, and that has had us a pretty significant building project over the past decade. We’ve added the Southwest Quadrangle and Dahlgren Hall, the Davis Performing Arts Center, the Hariri Building, Regents Hall. We’re going to announce tonight at the men’s basketball game the naming of the Intercollegiate Athletic Center for John Thompson Jr. and that shovel will go in the ground sometime during the spring or early summer. Hopefully, we’ll have that up by fall of 2016. All of that has been part of our effort to ensure that we can provide the best possible framework for the faculty-student interaction, included in that have been the investments in technology.
We’ve made pretty substantial investments in recent years in technology, and we are very proud of them. We wouldn’t have been able to respond to the disruptive force of the Massive Online Open Course movement if we hadn’t done the internal effort on our initiative on technology and advance learning. All those pieces are elements of what I refer to as our highest priorities. We then look within those categories, particularly the third one. Often those new ideas are in the third category. What more could we be doing, what more should we be doing that will enable us to be that much truer to our mission and to our identity? Some of them are expensive, some of them are not. Some of them are just organizing the University a little more effectively.
CJ: Last year, the Institute for College Access and Success published a study indicating that, as of 2011, 39 percent of Georgetown students graduate with an average of $28,035 in debt—$1,435 more than the national average. How does the problem of student debt relate to problems of accessibility at Georgetown?
DG: Well, it certainly shows that there are issues to pay attention to … That was the 2011 number, the 2012 number is less than that. I think the 2011 number reflects the acute circumstances of the financial crisis, the number for 2012 is $25,500. We’ve been around that number for the course of several years. The 2011 number was the highest number.
We are one of 24 schools that are need-blind full need. There are others that, because of their resources, can actually do better than that, so they can offer other kinds of financial support. But that group of 24 that are need-blind, full-need. I actually chair that group, called the 568 group. The 568 refers to a passage in Higher Reauthorization Bill about a decade ago. We were reauthorized about five years ago to continue this work.
What it enables us to do is develop a common formula by which we would access the need of the student. We have the approval of the Department of Education to work together to come up with a common need formula. When we apply that formula, we then know what a student will need in terms of support from the University. We ask the family to contribute the maximum that they are capable of according to that formula, we then ask that they borrow, we ask that they apply for work-study, whatever is left over, we pay the difference. That $107 million that we spend every year, that’s the difference that we are paying and accession for roughly 40 percent of our student body. The borrowing that we expect is only $17,500. We are only asking our students to borrow $17,500. They, with their families, are making a decision to borrow more.
Now, that’s worth paying attention to, but by the formula we share with the 24 other schools, we don’t believe it’s necessary. So, they’re making a choice to borrow an additional roughly $7,000 plus, maybe $8,000 over four years, roughly $2,000 a year. They’re making that decision. We understand it, we’re aware of it, but it’s not required by our assessment of their family capability. So, we’re only packaging $17,500. The average borrowing has been higher than that. We also think, though, that the $25,500—that’s the current number—is below the current number nationally, which is a little under $30,000. We already think it’s better here. It’s worth trying to understand why people are borrowing more, but by the need formula that we share with 23 other schools, it’s not required.
CJ: You don’t think that the need formula is flawed in any way?
DG: Well, it’s one that we’ve developed in connection with a group of colleges and universities. We’d also say, though, that given the value that one has with a college degree, I would certainly argue that $25,000 is not a high level of borrowing. I would argue that.
To be clear, we think you only need to borrow $17,500. We do that in conjunction with a group of schools, with the approval of the Department of Education. We recognize that people are borrowing more. Even at that higher level, we don’t think it’s that significant a debt burden, given the value of a college degree, let alone a Georgetown degree. Lifetime earnings for a college graduate are extraordinary compared to [a non-college graduate].
CJ: How does the problem of student debt relate to problems of accessibility at Georgetown?
DG: We don’t have evidence that our costs are deterring students from attending. We’re need-blind, full-need school, so we don’t know. We’re admitting the very best students without any sense of whether they can pay or not. Once they’re here, once they’re admitted, our yield rates are very high among our peer group. We’re essentially only losing students to a handful of schools that are frankly ranked ahead of us in any ranking that you would look at, so we actually do pretty well among others that are ranked ahead of us … we’re only losing to a small group of schools. We don’t see that deterring people from attending, and we don’t think that the $25,000 of debt has been a burden for people.
We are monitoring it very closely. We recognize the importance. You could argue that, “Why are you packaging at $17,500 if people are willing to borrow at $25,000?” That could save us a whole lot of money. [laughs]
CJ: That makes a lot of sense. I was wondering how you felt about Massive Open Online Courses and how they relate to—you seem happy to talk about this.
DG: I’m very happy—we’ve had a fantastic first experience. We brought in one of our most senior faculty, Ted Moran, who I think probably was a bit skeptical before he got into it, but I think he had a really good experience, and I think it was a very valuable first effort.
From our perspective, the Massive Open online Course movement was an opportunity to engage with a wonderful group of schools in the edX Consortium led by Harvard and MIT, to be able to learn together both how to develop a platform, but also how to learn from the experience of these online courses. We felt that the learning analytics that could be drawn as we got further deeper into the partnership would give us some insight about how we might be able to teach material better. We’ve always felt that the most valuable think about the MOOC experience was for us to deepen our capacity to develop resources we can bring back here into this community so that—what I said in a number of public settings recently, Connor, is that the most valuable thing we offer our students, the most valuable thing we can provide, is time with our faculty. If we can take some things that right now happen in the classroom and put them online and blend it with the in-class experience, we just might be able to do everything we’re doing here that much better.
It’s a new technology, we want to join the effort of trying to harness this technology, and learn from it, and to see how we might be able to do what we’re doing here that much better. Then there’s also the benefit, the opportunity we have to contribute to the public good of sharing some of our stuff with folks who otherwise would not have access to it.
CJ: So the accessibility for people who otherwise for whatever reasons can’t be here …
DG: Oh, that’s what I mean by a public good.
CJ: But it’s more of a secondary cause for Georgetown.
DG: You know, they happen at the same time. There are two ways in which we are making a contribution right now globally using online technology. One is by being part of the edX platform and making our MOOCs available. I’m very happy about that. We’re also a key partner in what’s called JC:HEM—Jesuit Commons Higher Education at the Margins. There’s a wonderful presentation of it on our website at the TedX Georgetown last October, where the woman who leads that, a women named Mary McFarland from Spokane, Washington, gave a talk. I introduced her. JC:HEM is an effort to deliver online learning to refugee camps in different parts of the world where Jesuit refugee services are serving. So, it’s important for us to be engaged in making available resources here that could be valuable in other parts of the world. But, I would always say the driver for us in the MOOC platform was to try to improve what we do here that much better. That’s our work.
CJ: Let’s switch gears a little bit. So, first, I’d like to ask you whether you think Georgetown has a problem in terms of racial and socioeconomic diversity, and after that, I’d like to ask you if there are ways we can shape that.
DG: The fundamental means by which we try to ensure inclusion here at the University has been, particularly socioeconomic diversity, through our financial aid program. We’re need-blind, so the invitation is to everyone, please consider Georgetown in your college planning, we are realistically affordable. And the way we do that is a $107 million investment and roughly 3,000 students, is how that plays out.
As a nation, we have a fault line, and that fault line is in terms of access to higher education. If you think about higher education and the distribution by socioeconomic status, right now, roughly three-quarters of the top quartile, where I think the average family income will be $88,000, the top quartile will be sending their students onto college at the rate of about three-quarters, 75% or so, maybe 70% will be going onto four-year college. The bottom quartile, it’s about 30%. But the graduation rate in that bottom quartile is about 90%, and that is a national challenge, national crisis, and one way in which we contribute to that is by ensuring that no one would be prevented from studying here by virtue of their socioeconomic status.
Second, we’ve had a pretty aggressive outreach into communities from the lower half socioeconomically in our country. We have more than 50 Cristo Rey students at Georgetown right now. We run a summer program, a bridge program, for rising seniors at Cristo Rey and Kipp High Schools. We do the same for—we’ve been doing this for almost 25 years of high schools in East Los Angeles that are part of an upper-bound program associated with Harvey Mudd. And then we’ve been able pull the students from East Los Angeles. California is our first state for students. In 1991, I actually began working with an alum of ours who was the director of the upper-bound program, and that began what has been going on for 25 years, that flow. So we’ve been pretty aggressive about trying to ensure outreach to those communities, and then once the students are admitted, ensuring that they’ve got the financial resources to be able to make it work.
The most difficult thing, I would say, is our financial aid program ensures that a student can cover their cost of living here—room, board, tuition, books, couple of trips home. Half of our student body doesn’t require any financial aid. And for half of our student body, they’re able to—they have more resources available to them on the weekends and for vacations and holidays and the like. So I think there can be some sense of—well, there are differences in our community, and sometimes those differences can be painful, and we need to be attentive, that the fundamental experience is available to everyone, recognizing that for some, the opportunities would be beyond what would be available for others.
CJ: I have a somewhat different question now. So, I’ve been covering the Federal Relations Office for a few years now, and the issues that they make as a priority seem to be, like the loan rates, the Stafford loan rates, in contention for a really long time, and access for undocumented students. I was wondering why Georgetown. It seems like you make this a very strong priority.
DG: Reflective of our federal relations policy are some of the things I say, and I will sometimes go on the radio and offer commentary, and I would say there are three particular pieces that would be consistent with what you’ve identified plus one.
In the last couple of years, we have focused a good deal on immigration reform, particularly DREAM students, and the reason for that is, we estimate that at any given time, we have 35 DREAM kids here, and we would like to provide a more—we’d like to be attentive to the conditions under which they are having to live and the fact that they live under a different set of circumstances than some of our other students do, and we want to be supportive of them. We’ve been at the forefront of advocating for the DREAM Act for several years now, and it remains an ongoing priority for our Office of Federal Relations.
Second, if we’re going to borrow $17,500, if you’re going to borrow it through a subsidized loan program, we’d like to keep the rates of those loans as low as possible. A year ago, those were going to double, and I went on the radio and asked that careful consideration be given to that doubling. And they were restored to a rate that was more reasonable. And more recently, in January, I gave some testimony on the radio about funding for research, and there’s been a decline in federal support for research on our nation’s campuses. The sequester cut 5.5% out of funding for the NIH [National Institutes of Health]. Overall, we were down 3.3% as a result over the course of the last year nationally.
The budget agreement that was reached in mid January restored a billion dollars in funding for nationally for research, but it’s still below 2012 levels by about $515 million. So, that was a third area, because most of our research is federally subsidized research. But if the dollars aren’t there—we’re seeing the most challenging funding environment for a researcher today than at any time of our lifetimes. And that’s a third area for federal relations. I think Scott [Scott Fleming (SFS ’72)] did a terrific job on behalf of higher education in advocating for additional research funding because we were able to—the budget ended up in a pretty good place relative to where we were.
CJ: Do you mind if I ask about the free speech policy here on campus?
CJ: So, this has been an ongoing thing over the last two years. Nate Tisa (SFS ’14) was the first to put it into his platform, to reform the universities free speech policy, and actually every GUSA ticket this time around included that as a plank in their platforms. And not a whole lot has been done. There was that forum and it clarified some of the misinformation on the policy, but still students are seeking reform of the speech and expression policy, and I was wondering if you saw any need for Georgetown to alter the speech and expression policy.
DG: Well, you know, the speech and expression policy was formally implemented in 1989, so we’re 25 years into it. I would say that throughout those 25 years, we have always asked ourselves whether it was appropriate for the needs of our community, because it is intended to set up a clear framework that respects maximum speech and expression.
The most important piece of the document is no one will be denied the ability to speak either on the basis of the view being expressed or the person expressing the view. That’s a pretty impactful policy that we made 25 years ago as a university community. But it’s a living document. We have a committee on speech and expression that’s been engaging this for all of these years. I know that [Todd] Olson is working with that committee this spring to address some of the concerns that emerged in the town hall. I think there was some information, but I think the policy was drafted and the committee was established as a standing committee for the University, the committee on speech and expression. At the same time, [we] recognize that this was a living document that would require our ongoing care and attention. And it’s intended to be reviewed carefully. That’s what we’ll be doing this spring under the direction of Dr. Olson and the committee.
CJ: You didn’t really answer my question though, about whether you see the need for it to be …
DG: I see a need for it to be continually examined. If there is a need to change elements of it, I’m open to hearing about it.
CJ: Do you mind if I ask about …
DG: I don’t mind if you ask about anything.
CJ: So Georgetown has this commitment to Jesuit ideals, serving, you know, our community and the world. The Voice wrote a cover story about this recently about, as kind of a paradox, that so many of our graduates go on to banking and consulting after graduation. And, just because of the implications of what that means in terms of like Wall Street bankers and the unsavory things that maybe a lot of people don’t seem to like, and I was wondering if you saw Georgetown’s prevalence in sending kids to the financial industry as a problem.
DG: That’s a fair question, I guess. I don’t see it as a paradox. I think that the most important idea in the Jesuit tradition is that it is possible to serve God wherever we are, whatever we’re doing. And frankly, I feel pretty good about the idea that there are a lot of Georgetown people who are engaged in different kinds of activities because those are different ways of being witness to our values and our traditions.
CJ: So, I’m sure you’re familiar with William Blatty’s (COL ’50) petition going to the Vatican. As I’m sure you also know, the Pope has, when he was cardinal, I believe, he asked that, I can’t remember exactly which university in South America, to reform or lose its Catholic status. And now he’s Pope and this petition is moving onwards … So my question is, whether it did come to, either complying to ex coordinae excelsiae or Georgetown losing it’s Catholic status, which is not a likely scenario.
DG: Well, I guess what I’d say is that ex coordae ecclasiae was a document that was put forward over roughly the course of the last 25 years, the formal framework for ensuring alignment came about 11 or 12 years ago. I believe that Georgetown has been in alignment with the guidelines of ex coordae since they were put in place.
I’ve worked with two different archbishops in Washington, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick and Cardinal Donald Wuerl on those matters. We feel very comfortable about our Catholic and Jesuit identity and feel that we’re very excited about this opportunity of working under a new pope. All of our engagement thus far has been very positive. Two different groups of Georgetown folks have had the chance to be with the Holy Father. And I also have a picture there of my son and I and my wife from last spring. So, I couldn’t speak about his experience in Argentina, I’m not familiar with that. But we’ve enjoyed a very positive working relationship with the archdiocese and with the Vatican.
In fact, this spring, we have two events, just to give you a heads up on. In the first part of April, we’re going to be doing a conference on faith and public life, with the Vatican congregation on culture. It’s going to be a three day conference. One part of it will be in the Kennedy Center, one part of it will be here, one part will be at the Library of Congress. Interesting pieces, the part at the Kennedy center—one piece of it will be a joint sponsorship of an international hip-hop festival. Hip-hop as a means of intercultural, interreligious dialogue. And so, we’re partnering with the Kennedy center … and Russell Simmons on this international hip-hop festival, which will include the Vatican as a partner. I think this is pretty cool, when all is said and done … This is a series that the Vatican congregation on culture has done where they’re partner here, for presentation in the United States. We’ve been working on that for a couple of years. We’re really excited about it.
And then, May 5th, we will be hosting … a concert at Constitution Hall to celebrate the canonization of Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II. The Pope’s maestro, Sir Gilbert Levine, that’s his moniker. He did about eight events for Pope John Paul II during his, in terms of putting together concerts. […] The archdiocese of Washington, WETA is going to broadcast it. And then the embassies of the Holy See, Argentina, Poland and Italy. So it’s going to be a pretty powerful event, and it’s a reflection again of our, a public witness to, our Catholic and Jesuit identity.
Photo: Georgetown Voice/Freddy Rosas