In just a few decades, George Mason University has emerged as the largest and most diverse public four-year institution in Virginia and a national tier-one research university. Indeed, it is the youngest institution in the U.S. holding a “Carnegie R1” designation because of its high level of research.
The university today is a powerful engine of innovation, social mobility and economic growth for Northern Virginia and, by extension, for the entire commonwealth. It delivers graduation rates, career outcomes and student loan repayment rates across demographics that are exceptional for large, metropolitan, comprehensive public universities and on par with flagship and more selective schools. And it attracts tens of millions of dollars every year in research grants.
Quite notably, the university achieves all this while charging about 28% lower in-state tuition than the other three “R1s” in Virginia (University of Virginia, Virginia Tech and Virginia Commonwealth University), with a fraction of their endowment, and, sadly, with about one-quarter less state support per student. While private philanthropy has more than doubled in recent years, it alone cannot compensate for the weakness in public support.
And thus my departing word of caution: for this university to continue to grow and deliver the extraordinary value it creates for students and the state’s economy, it is essential that Virginia lawmakers reassess current funding levels as well as the university’s treatment from an overall policy standpoint.
Since 2010, Mason has delivered 64% of the state’s net enrollment growth, thus making the biggest contribution to the State Council of Higher Education of Virginia’s official goal of becoming the best educated state by 2030. That growth has come with record diversity and record student outcomes.
About one-third of students qualify for Pell Grants (the federal need-based financial aid program), compared with 20% at the other top research universities in the state; about 40% are the first generation in their families to go to college; and more than half are non-white. Initiatives such as the Early Identification Program and the ADVANCE partnership with Northern Virginia Community College (NVCC) have created greater access for students from a broad range of backgrounds. Today, about half of our students start at a community college (most of them at NVCC), making Mason the No. 1 destination in the state for transfer students.
Our commitment to diversity hasn’t prevented our graduation rates from reaching 70%, earning Mason a seat in the American Talent Initiative (a national league of schools with high graduation rates that also includes UVA, Virginia Tech and the College of William & Mary). Mason’s student loan default rate is only 2.3%, virtually on par with the 2.1% of the other top-tier research universities in the commonwealth and significantly lower than the 9.8% of the other Virginia universities serving student bodies where 30% or more are Pell Grant recipients.
Upon graduation, the vast majority of our students stay around Northern Virginia, adding to the vibrancy and economic success of the region that contributes the lion’s share of the state’s tax revenues. Mason produces the state’s largest number of graduates in highly sought information technology and computing majors, a primary factor cited by Amazon in its decision to build its second headquarters in Northern Virginia.
In the next decade, the university plans to triple the number of graduates in tech fields to meet the workforce demands of industry leaders and our partners in the community. And the university’s strong commitment to providing access to students from a broad range of socioeconomic and demographic backgrounds means that the state’s tech talent pool will be rich in diversity, answering an important demand from Virginia employers.
While delivering on our commitment to access and student success, Mason also has managed to join the ranks of the most research intense universities in the nation. Building on its original strengths in economics and social sciences, Mason has emerged as a leader in cyber security and information technology and is growing rapidly in other science and engineering fields.
In 2015, the university was reclassified as one of the then 115 institutions in the top research tier of the influential Carnegie Classification, a status that was reaffirmed in 2018. The university now competes successfully for major grants from the leading federal agencies. Contrary to some recent experiences with statewide initiatives, we seem to have no trouble convincing federal decision makers about our capabilities. Two years ago, for example, Mason won a national competition to establish the Center of Excellence from the Department of Homeland Security, the ninth in the nation and the first one in Virginia.
Proud as I am of these achievements, as outgoing president I am concerned this path is precarious and likely unsustainable without funding structures that invest in this growth on par with our peer institutions. The faculty and staff at Mason have demonstrated they can deliver extraordinary value to the region and the state. They have written a remarkable chapter in the history of American higher education and are ready to do much more.
Ángel Cabrera will leave the presidency of George Mason University on July 31 and will begin his term as president of Georgia Tech on Sept. 1. He can be followed on Twitter at @CabreraAngel.