Mason lauded for programs that make transferring easier, more accessible for students

The HUB on the Fairfax Campus. Photo by Evan Cantwell/Creative Services.

George Mason University, Virginia’s largest and most diverse public research institution, has been recognized by the American Talent Initiative (ATI) for being an exemplar in moving beyond traditional pipelines in order to close equity gaps in bachelor’s degree attainment in Virginia and meet the workforce demands in its region.

In the 2018-19 academic year, Mason enrolled 2,213 new transfer students, about 40% of whom received Pell Grants. Seventy-three percent of these transfers originated from neighboring Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA), and nearly half of the university’s graduating class each year are transfer students.

“Mason has a long history of serving transfer students and has recently redoubled its efforts to both expand access to a four-year degree and provide the necessary support structures to better assure student success,” said David Burge, Mason’s vice president for enrollment management. “Students at Mason, whether they enter as freshmen or transfer students, can count on having access to the resources they need to graduate and go on to achieve whatever their dreams might be.”

ATI’s report “Expanding Opportunity for Lower-Income Students: Three Years of the American Talent Initiative” shows that ATI is on track to accomplish its goal to increase enrollment of low- and moderate-income students by 50,000 at the nation's high-graduation-rate colleges by 2025.

Certain universities, such as Mason, offer effective models to accelerate momentum toward achieving this goal, ATI said.

Mason joined ATI, a collaborative of the nation’s top 120 four-year institutions, in August 2019. The initiative is a collaboration with the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program, Ithaka S+R, and multiple colleges and universities, with support from Bloomberg Philanthropies. All institutions in the initiative must achieve a 70% graduation rate within six years.

ATI also is recognizing Mason for increasing Pell enrollment by 1,125 students between the 2015-16 academic year and 2018-19. Thirty-one percent of Mason students received Pell Grants in 2018-19.

Among ATI members—and among universities nationwide—Mason is an exemplar in the ways it has intentionally worked to enroll and integrate transfer students, especially from community colleges, which enroll a disproportionate share of lower-income students, ATI said.

"For more than 40% of America's undergraduates, community college is still the gateway to higher education and better socio-economic outcomes. So, it's critically important that the transfer pipeline works," said Michelle Marks, Mason’s vice president of academic innovation and new ventures.  “When we remove transfer barriers for students, we increase their chances for upward mobility. That has huge implications for the students, their families and our growing regional economy. They come here and thrive and, incidentally, graduate at the same rates as those who begin at Mason as freshmen.”

A key element of Mason’s transfer strategy is the ADVANCE Program, a collaboration with NOVA that paves seamless pathways to a four-year degree and aligns curriculum, financial aid, advising and other student services while saving students money. Students in ADVANCE take classes at Mason while enrolled in NOVA, and receive automatic admission into the university as long as they meet program requirements.

The program, which has more than 1,000 active students and 102 pathways to degrees in just its second year, was honored with the 2019 John N. Gardner Institutional Excellence for Students in Transition Award.

Students also transfer through Mason’s longstanding Pathway to the Baccalaureate program, a partnership with NOVA aimed at increasing attainment among historically underserved populations. More than 80% of Pathway’s transfers to Mason complete their bachelor’s within three years of transferring.

Kerin Hilker-Balkissoon, director of Educational and Career Pathways for Mason’s College of Science, helped implement the Pathway to Baccalaureate program and was recently recognized by the National Institute for the Study of Transfer Students. She was one of four to receive the Bonita C. Jacobs Transfer Champion—Catalyst award, which acknowledges individuals who have made a significant impact in the transfer field at the institutional, regional, and/or state level.

“George Mason University has done a tremendous job welcoming transfer students and equipping them with the necessary support and guidance to ensure high graduation rates and long-term success,” said Martin Kurzweil, director of Ithaka’s Educational Transformation Program. “We’re highlighting Mason because it’s a stellar example of what ATI member schools are capable of achieving when they aggressively tackle our mission with a comprehensive strategy. We’re excited to share its progress and insights in this year’s report.”