The Education Issue Think D.C. isn't a college town? Think again.

Photographs by Darrow Montgomery

In the popular imagination, cities only get one identity: Los Angeles does film; Seattle does the Internet; D.C. does national politics. Boston is the college town (which probably means Cambridge, anyway), not the District.

But those oversimplified shortcuts, like all oversimplified shortcuts, miss a lot. (For one, Seattle also does coffee.) Yes, D.C. is the nation’s capital, but what’s the largest nongovernment employer in the city? George Washington University. The second-largest? Georgetown University. The fifth-largest? Howard University. The seventh- and eighth-largest employers? American University and Catholic University. The Washington area is home to roughly 450,000 college students—and countless more in graduate and professional schools. Education isn’t just something that folks here make policy on, after all.

In this issue, Washington City Paper takes a look at some facets of the District’s own ivory tower sector, from how GW shrugged off a scolding by the rankings mavens at U.S. News & World Report to how gentrification near campus left Howard sitting on a real estate gold mine and why some deceased residents of the city make a stop at the University of the District of Columbia before reaching their final resting places. We’ve also got a snapshot of statistics and facts about local colleges.

Keep all that in mind, and the next time someone tells you there’s nothing going on here but politics: School ’em. —Mike Madden



Pulling Rank

Inside George Washington University’s year in the college rankings wilderness

By Will Sommer

In the competitive world of the U.S. News & World Report college rankings, George Washington University has seen some success: the seventh-best international business program, the 20th-best law school. But on Nov. 14, 2012, it became a contender for another, more dubious title: the country’s most prestigious unranked university. After the school admitted to U.S. News that it had accidentally overstated its freshman students’ high school accomplishments for 10 years, the college rankings powerhouse took away the school’s ranking as 51st best in the country.

Instead, U.S. News wouldn’t rank George Washington at all for a year in its centerpiece undergraduate college rankings. Suddenly, George Washington had the same U.S. News ranking as the for-profit University of Phoenix—in other words, none at all.

The unranking represented a challenge to George Washington’s premium price tag, its administration, and the students paying for it all. The school’s Student Association, concerned about whether graduate schools would shy away from applicants from a briefly unranked school, demanded that administrators organize an emergency town hall meeting to explain what had gone wrong.

After almost a month of declining to comment to reporters about the unranking, the school’s head of undergraduate admissions abruptly retired. Businessweek declared the affair a “ranking scandal.”

Three months later, though, George Washington’s year as an unranked school isn’t looking so grim. The school has drawn even more applicants for its next freshman class than for its last, ranked class, and the unranking’s significance for George Washington students has subsided into a running joke. The school’s relatively easy year in exile raises a question about the U.S. News rankings: If George Washington can bounce back so easily from the ultimate punishment the top ranking organization can hand out, how influential can the rankings be?

That question has been bubbling up for a while now. George Washington’s unranking came in the middle of a spate of schools admitting that they had submitted bad data to U.S. News. Earlier in 2012, both Claremont McKenna College and Emory University admitted to providing exaggerated freshman SAT scores to U.S. News, while this January, Bucknell University acknowledged the same. So far, all three schools have kept their ranking because, according to U.S. News, the incorrect SAT scores didn’t change where they fell in the magazine’s proprietary ranking formula.

U.S. News also announced in January that it would drop Tulane University’s business school from its rankings, after the school admitted that it provided bad data on its acceptance rate—the school said it took 57 percent of applicants, when in fact, it accepted a whopping 93 percent.

Despite what looks like a new trend of schools misreporting their data, Robert Morse, U.S. News’ director of data research, says the bad data only seems to happen more frequently because schools are announcing it more often. “It’s happened a micropercent of the time,” he says.

Besides booting them from its lists, though, there’s not much U.S. News can do to keep schools from cheating. Schools report some of their data to both U.S. News and the federal government, which Morse hopes encourages honesty. Beyond that, Morse isn’t sure whether unranking is enough of a punishment to discourage lazy or malicious data reporting. “You’ll have to ask the schools,” he says.

Bad data reporting is just the latest challenge to U.S. News’ importance to every type-A high school senior (and, more importantly for U.S. News advertisers, their parents). For years, the magazine has been criticized for basing almost a quarter of its university rankings formula on surveys from academics at other schools, raising the question of how closely a dean at, say, American University follows undergraduate developments at George Washington.

George Washington’s trouble came after it claimed 78 percent of its incoming class were in the top 10 percent of their high schools, when in fact it was closer to 58 percent. That gets at the problem underlying the entire U.S. News college ranking enterprise: trying to quantify a college experience. How much does the high school class rank of incoming freshmen really say about the education GW’s faculty is providing its students, which is—at least ostensibly—what the rankings are trying to illuminate?

For George Washington, the unranking hasn’t changed the school much. “We remain the same university today that we were yesterday,” university president Steven Knapp said in a statement released after the unranking. Later, in an interview with the GW Hatchet student newspaper, Knapp dismissed the U.S. News rankings as a “one-size-fits-all system.”

The unranking also hasn’t affected the school’s sense of what it should charge students. In February, George Washington increased its tuition by three percent to $47,343 a year, putting the cost with room and board of attending the school at $58,488. That 3.5 percent increase is less than the school’s 3.7 percent tuition increase from 2011 to 2012, and less than the average 2012 tuition increase rate for private colleges of 4.2 percent. Still, the new cost of attending George Washington puts the school just $44 short of cracking Forbes’ list of the 10 most expensive schools in the nation (all but the most expensive of which, Sarah Lawrence College, are ranked in the U.S. News list—Sarah Lawrence doesn’t require applicants to take the SAT, so the magazine doesn’t rank it).

It hasn’t affected admissions, either. In fact, applications have increased. As of Feb. 15, 22,003 high school students had applied to George Washington for the 2013–2014 school year. In comparison, 21,756 had applied at that point last year. “We have seen no discernible impact on student interest,” George Washington spokeswoman Michelle Sherard writes in an email.

For George Washington students, the initial surprise of finding their pricey school in the heart of the country’s capital suddenly unranked has faded months later. “It was still pretty shocking, I would say, for a lot of people,” says Priya Anand, the editor-in-chief of the Hatchet. Now, though, according to Anand, the unranking is mainly referenced in Hatchet comments blaming it jokingly for all manner of minor problems at the school.

The Student Association, too, isn’t as concerned about the unranking as it once was. Hugo Scheckter, a George Washington senior who spearheaded the student government’s demands for more answers from the school after the unranking, says the school’s officially-mandated status reduction is just a joke now. “Who are our big rival schools?” says Scheckter. “Well, it’s these online colleges.”

In fact, the unranking’s main effect on student life has been its contribution to the field of undergraduate comedy. @FakeStevenKnapp, a Twitter account that parodies Knapp as a kind of malevolent Daddy Warbucks, has found inside-joke gold in the school’s humbling.

The imposter Knapp seemed to take glee in how anguished his students first were at the unranking. “Yea, I did say that we are probably going to raise tuition again,” the account tweeted in November, presaging the February tuition increase. “What are you gonna do about it?!”

George Washington’s total 2013/’14 cost is just $44 short of cracking Forbes’ list of the 10 most expensive schools in the nation.

Student Body

UDC’s mortuary science program trains the next generation of morticians.

By Benjamin R. Freed

At least 37 homeless people in the District died in 2012. For those who left no next-of-kin, there’s a good chance their bodies wound up unclaimed and shelved in the morgue at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. But eventually, those bodies need to be cleared out, and when they are, they are often taken to the University of the District of Columbia, where professors and students in the mortuary science program perform the post-mortem rites.

These bodies, many of which are in some state of decomposition after months in the refrigerator, are delivered to the instructors and their students. The deceased are washed, embalmed, and—if there are any bereaved to be found—given a funeral before being returned to the morgue for cremation and burial.

It’s a little-noticed but important deed that’s being carried out. And though the beneficiaries of these services are people who may not have been much cared for in life, students are told to approach them with as much care in death as they would offer a paying customer. “From day one, we were taught you treat these people with the utmost respect,” says Tara Gradoville, who is training to be an embalmer.

Gradoville is one of about 100 people enrolled in the mortuary science program at UDC’s Community College who are studying to be the next generation of professionals in an industry that seems to be, by definition, recession-proof.

As long as humans have roamed the earth, we’ve developed routines for what to do with our bodies when our clocks run out. Eventually, by some ritual, we are all put back in the earth. But it wasn’t until after the Civil War that the American death industry emerged. With tens of thousands of families wanting last looks at their husbands and sons who died on distant battlefields, embalming became increasingly popular. Abraham Lincoln’s blood was drained and replaced with fluid so that when his corpse arrived by train in Springfield, Ill., he looked as fresh to mourners in his hometown as he did in D.C.

Today, the funeral business, like many other professional services, is heavily regimented, from required coursework to board certification to industry-dominating companies. And the mortuary science program at UDC is one of 58 programs around the United States that feed this system. There are 124 students enrolled for the 2012-13 academic year in the UDC program, which takes two full academic years to complete at a cost of $100 per credit hour (for District residents). Finishing the program takes 73 credit hours.

But all is not well with the mortuary science program these days: Last fall, it landed on the probation list of the American Board of Funeral Service Education, which accredits mortuary programs around the country so their graduates can be licensed by the jurisdictions in which they practice.

To be considered in good standing, a mortuary science program must, among other things, have at least 60 percent of their students pass the national board exam on their first try. Most schools routinely hit the 70s or 80s; a few even hit 100 percent. Last year, according to statistics released by UDC, only 10 out of 21 students who took the test for the first time passed the written exam; the year before, it was five out of 10. UDC is currently up for re-accreditation for that reason and others, says Michael Smith, the ABFSE’s executive director.

Vincent E. Hill, the UDC program’s director since 2011, declined repeated requests to be interviewed for this article.

But Hill, according to students and Smith, is mending the issues that brought UDC under closer scrutiny. Besides the low examination rates, the ABFSE’s accredidation body found problems with the school’s embalming laboratory, which is now in the process of a $500,000 renovation. Smith, who visited UDC’s Van Ness Campus last week, says the blueprints for the new lab are promising, as are some of the other fixes the program is working to make.

That would include management issues. Hill took over the program after the 2011 death of Leander M. Coles, one of the department’s founders. That was followed by the departure of other instructors, leaving the program with several staffing holes. The transition, though, brought some scientific heft to the department. Whereas Coles was a funeral director and minister by training, Hill, a licensed pathologist, was a deputy medical examiner for the D.C. government for many years.

Smith says Hill’s leadership of UDC’s program is promising.

“Dr. Hill came in and he had a major task to get things in order,” Smith says. “They weren’t in order when the regular visit occurred last fall. They’ve made pretty remarkable progress.”

Outsiders often approach mortuary science programs with a certain morbid stigma. Writing in Social Psychology Quarterly in 1999, Spencer E. Cahill, a professor at the University of South Florida, found that mortuary science students, whether conversing with their fellow students at parties or simply buying books for the semester, were frozen out as soon as their course of study was mentioned. Even in his analytical participation in mortuary science, Cahill experienced this.

“The student cashier greeted me with a smile and a pleasant hello, picked up the book to find the price, saw that the title was The Principles and Practice of Embalming, coldly told me the price, and studiously avoided my eyes throughout the remainder of my transaction,” he wrote.

Cahill, who died in 2006, heard other students’ stories about being peppered with odd questions about brain removals, and frequently being rejected for dates after saying what they were studying.

Gradoville, however, is quite open about the topic. At 38, she’s looking to switch from her career as a dental hygienist, and a few years ago, when a UDC course catalog randomly appeared in the mail, mortuary science seemed appealing.

“My husband said, ‘You’re weird,’” Gradoville recalls.

Gradoville enrolled in fall 2011 with no preconceptions about the death industry. “I kind of went in blindly,” she says. “But I kind of like it. It’s different from what I had been doing. Obviously no one’s complaining.”

Swapping out cranky dental patients for silent corpses isn’t the only difference. To Gradoville, the mortuary science program is a track to perhaps one day owning her own funeral home, though in D.C., where space is tight and opening such a business takes many regulatory and licensing hurdles—to say nothing of the capital required —that’s a long-term goal. Most mortuary science graduates in D.C. and elsewhere land jobs in funeral homes, Smith says.

Before any of that happens, however, Gradoville first needs to do all the work required for a license to practice in the death industry. There’s the associate’s degree in mortuary science, which she’s a few months away from completing, though not before she takes her first crack at the national board exam, which costs $400 a sitting. Following that is an apprenticeship, a yearlong term at an actual funeral home that, if she’s lucky, will pay a salary.

With so many funeral homes having names that include the phrase “and Sons,” it’s easy to expect that most students in mortuary science programs are doing it to join the family business. That’s the case for some of Gradoville’s classmates, but they’re not joining up at a young age. In fact, she places herself in the median age of her class. Many, like her, came to it as a second career. “There’s people in their 50s and 60s in my class,” she says.

The same can be said for some of the six instructors. While trying to stake out Hill, I meet with John Kirksey, who teaches an embalming class. Kirksey, a former sales representative for Remington Arms, tells me got into the death business through contacts he made at the skeet and trap ranges where he competes. He still works regularly as an embalmer.

Kirksey is more eager to talk about his marksmanship skills than his funereal ones, but it’s obvious he is very methodical about his embalming work. The night before he takes a class to an off-campus mortuary to perform an embalming, he takes a call from a student and sternly reminds his charge to wear a suit and bring medical scrubs.

A student needs to embalm 10 corpses to graduate; Gradoville is on No. 9. “The first person I embalmed was scary, I guess,” she says. “The first time you do anything is scary. Everyone’s got this fear of the dead. It’s that mentality that society has.”

But Gradoville says any fright she experienced wasn’t from seeing too many zombie movies. It was more a matter of nerves and making sure she didn’t miss when making the incision to drain the corpse’s blood.

“It was more the fact that I was scared to cut into them to find their [carotid] artery,” she says. “What if I did it wrong? Kirksey said, ‘You’re not gonna hurt him. He’s dead.’”

Since then, the process has become more automatic. Still, Gradoville tries to humanize it. Sometimes she’ll talk to a body while it is being drained of blood and pumped with formaldehyde. Anything to distract from the smells, which, in the case of bodies delivered from the District morgue, are “not good.”

The procedures themselves can be over in less than an hour or be all-day affairs.

“Best-case scenario, they have no problems,” Gradoville says. “You make the incision in the carotid artery, pump the embalming fluid in, pump the blood, no problem. Then there’s the restorative art.”

That’s where the artistic side of mortuary science comes in, and it can be tricky. In one of Gradoville’s classes, students were asked to construct an ear for a man who had lost one of his. During our interview at a Shaw restaurant, Gradoville pulls out her iPhone and shows me a photo of her handiwork. It’s a pretty good resemblance of a human ear, made from some kind of resin, complete with raised lines where cartilage would be and sagging, rubbery lobes.

There are also nondeath-related career options for an embalmer, Gradoville has learned these past 18 months. People skilled in preserving flesh are needed when harvesting organs for life-saving transplants, something Gradoville says she might be interested in, though she’s still leaning toward preparing the dead for their final appearances.

If Gradoville ends up working in one of D.C.’s funeral homes, she’ll be treating a different kind of corpse. Unlike the forgotten ones from the morgue who can linger for months before UDC’s students work with them, people who die peacefully can be on the embalmer’s slab three hours later. There’s also a good chance she could end up working for one of the two major corporations that own an increasingly large number of funeral homes and cemeteries around the country. Some of the best-known facilities are subsidiaries of Houston-based Service Corporation Inc., like Joseph Gawler’s Sons in Friendship Heights, which boasts among its former clients President John F. Kennedy. Most funeral homes in D.C., however, are still independently owned.

“I would rather not work for a corporation,” Gradoville says. Either way, once she passes the board exam, obtains the associate’s degree, and completes the 2,500-hour apprenticeship, death will be her business. “I’m going to see it every day.”

Real Estate 101

How gentrification fueled a property windfall for Howard University

By Aaron Wiener

Developers in greater Shaw looking to bring home the bread are turning increasingly to, well, bread.

Douglas Development pounced on the old Wonder Bread factory on S Street NW, shuttered since 1988 but now in high demand thanks to its location steps from the Shaw Metro; it’s set to reopen as offices in May. Howard University, meanwhile, is in the process of developing the former Bond Bread building on Georgia Avenue NW between V and W streets into Howard Town Center, a mixed-use project for which the developers plan 445 apartments, a supermarket, and other retail. The long-defunct Bond apparently made a mean cinnamon streusel swirl bread, but by developing the property, Howard is likely to generate much more dough.

Since the turn of the millennium, the area surrounding Howard University has seen its fortunes rise more quickly than perhaps any other part of the city, and vacant industrial spaces are giving way to swanky new office and residential buildings for which tenants are paying top dollar. Howard bought up a wide swath of land near its campus between the late 1970s and early 1990s, when property values were still depressed following the 1968 riots and the depopulation of the District.

“Howard was acquisitive of land over its history,” says Office of Planning Director Harriet Tregoning. “It bought lots of land, even if it didn’t know what the heck it was going to do with it.”

Much of that land has sat undeveloped as surface parking lots, to the dismay of students and neighbors who’d prefer restaurants and shops and dorms. But now, with property values in the Shaw area skyrocketing, these lots suddenly represent opportunities for a healthy profit. Some of them were assessed last year in the tens of millions of dollars.

Colleges constantly make land-use decisions as they expand. But rarely do they find themselves gaining as much property value as Howard has in recent years. Georgetown, George Washington, and American University have been in pricey neighborhoods for quite some time; Catholic and Gallaudet are surrounded by up-and-coming neighborhoods that haven’t reached their peaks. But the areas around Howard, according to census figures, have seen the most marked shift from low- to middle- or upper-middle-income between 2000 and 2010 of any in the city. Howard’s property windfall could offer the best glimpse into the choice colleges must make when they find the neighborhoods around them gentrifying: capitalize on the boom and use the proceeds to fund other priorities, or ignore the trends and use their properties for campus facilities?

In Howard’s case, the answer is both.

“I don’t think we entered into a conversation where there was an either/or proposition,” says Maybelle Bennett, director of the Howard University Community Association, the school’s liaison to its environs.

On the profit side, Howard Town Center is Exhibit A. In 2008, the university completed a long-planned swap with the city, handing over a plot of vacant land at Florida and Sherman avenues NW for a parcel that included the big Bond Bread building. Howard will lease the space to developers Cohen Companies and CastleRock Partners in exchange for rent, which Howard spokeswoman Kerry-Ann Hamilton says will increase as the development grows and will likely be between $1 million and $2 million per year. The property, according to last year’s tax assessment, is worth more than $35 million. To ice the cake, in December the D.C. Council approved a $11 million tax abatement for the development that D.C. Chief Financial Officer Nat Gandhi and the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, a prominent good-government group, had deemed unnecessary.

Bennett acknowledges that gentrification can be a boon to universities like Howard by allowing projects like Howard Town Center to generate more revenue. But she stresses that revenue must be balanced with pressing campus needs. And so with other properties, Howard plans to eschew easy money and devote these spaces to campus functions like dormitories, a research building, and a fitness center.

Universities are required to submit a campus plan for approval by the Zoning Commission every 10 years, and the tenor of a school’s campus plan debate says a lot about its relations with the surrounding community. In advance of Georgetown’s Zoning Commission hearing, the Office of Planning recommended in 2011 that Georgetown fit all of its undergraduates in university-provided housing by 2016 in an effort to tamp down conflicts with peeved neighbors. At the same time, American University tried to build more dorms in upper Northwest, but faced community opposition to the construction.

Town-gown relations generally haven’t been as strained at schools other than Georgetown, American, and GW, but Howard has occasionally felt the push and pull of changing demands from neighbors. Bennett recalls the debate over parking lots in the 1980s, when she was on the Zoning Commission.

“I remember sitting on the master plan hearing back then, when the neighbors were complaining about the number of faculty and staff who were competing with them for parking,” Bennett says. “At that time, they were asking us to create as much off-street parking as possible. As we all have become more sensitive about the environment and greater sustainability, a lot of that has changed public opinion. And now instead of being seen as a benefit to the community, parking lots are being seen as a problem.”

Neighborhood leaders have at times lamented what they perceived as Howard’s foot-dragging when it came to developing the unsightly, polluting lots that dot the campus perimeter, particularly the lots bounded by Georgia Avenue, V, 9th, and Barry streets.

“There has been a vast, vast improvement on Howard University’s community relations and the handling of their property holdings,” says local Advisory Neighborhood Commission Chair Myla Moss. “There was a time, maybe about 15 years back, when they were not the best at being proactive in moving their property.”

The changes in the neighborhood may be spurring on changes to the campus that will benefit the community. The creep of gentrification prompted plans for Gallaudet University to open up its campus in the direction of commercially buzzing NoMa and the newish Red Line Metro station. To a lesser extent, the same dynamic is at play at Howard. “Some of the changes in the neighborhood had an effect on Howard’s latest plan,” says Tregoning, who was involved in the discussions that produced the plan and pushed Howard to create more physical connections with its surroundings. “They were really interested in having a more open campus.”

But the biggest planned changes are to those pesky parking lots, which will become apartments for upperclassmen and a wellness and fitness center. The student housing, in particular, is sorely needed. Unlikely many colleges, Howard doesn’t guarantee on-campus housing to any class of students. Bennett says about 60 percent of undergraduates, and 40 percent of all students, are housed on campus. In its approval of the campus plan last January, the Zoning Commission mandated that Howard provide on-campus housing for at least 70 percent of its more than 7,000 undergraduates by fall 2026.

Given the university’s dire needs, neighbors who might have otherwise preferred public amenities in the areas to be developed support the move to build dorms.

“They’re losing Rhodes Scholars, literally, because they have the worst dormitories, period,” says Moss, who believes that a successful university will ultimately benefit the whole community.

Clearly, the dorms are needed for the university’s future prosperity. But the trade-off is big: When the rent from Howard Town Center starts rolling in, it’s hard to imagine that the university’s planning and finance officials won’t occasionally look at the school’s new residence buildings and think about the millions that could have been.

Our Readers Say

St. John's College has rejected the US News rankings for years now and continues to do just fine.
For decades GW has been more a real estate investment firm than a school.

And yet you fail to tie the two parts of your story together.

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