Mason posts strong enrollment numbers for Fall 2021

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Mason students on Wilkins Plaza at the Get Connected student activities fair at the start of the fall semester 2021. Photo by Evan Cantwell/Creative Services

George Mason University welcomed its largest freshman class for the Fall 2021 semester, which was part of the largest-ever entry of new degree-seeking undergraduates.

The 6,864 new students included 4,016 first-time freshmen and 2,848 transfer students.

Fifty-seven percent of incoming freshmen identify as being of a racial or ethnic minority, up from 55% in 2020.

U.S. News & World Report has consistently ranked Mason as Virginia’s most diverse and innovative university.

“It’s a real good-news story,” David Burge, Mason’s vice president for enrollment management, said of the enrollment numbers. “And that’s not what everybody is experiencing.”

The Antonin Scalia Law School saw new enrollment grow to 348 students, compared to 198 in Fall 2016. Mason Korea’s 519 new students increased by 28 over Fall 2020.

Overall, the university’s enrollment increased slightly to 39,134.

“What it says is the university’s growth is related to the growth in the quality, and the growth in esteem for the experience that our students have, which is an inspiring and engaging experience that helps them grow, develop and succeed in their career and their life,” Provost Mark Ginsberg said.

Bringing in a record-breaking freshman class was a university-wide success story, Burge said.

“There were hundreds of people from the academic units to the central administration to communications and marketing who helped us change everything,” he said.

That included creating virtual tours of the campus and virtual orientations so that prospective students who might not have visited Mason we able to get a look at and feel for the university. 

Mason also rapidly expanded its virtual academic programs, Burge said, providing students options for different learning environments.

The university also mounted an aggressive response to the pandemic, which has kept COVID-19 cases among students, faculty and staff very low—an important selling point, Burge said.

More than 90% of students and employees are vaccinated. There is also an indoor mask mandate and free on-campus testing, all of which has allowed Mason to also offer a full campus experience of in-person classes, services and events.

“We decided as a central messaging point that we would make the case that the way universities respond to their students in times of crisis is an exemplar of how they would care for students while not in crisis,” Burge said. “We wanted to say, ‘Here’s how we’re caring for our students.’ ”

There are challenges ahead when it comes to continued enrollment growth, he said.

Though the Fall 2021 freshman class includes students from 46 states (as well as Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico and Guam), and 36 foreign countries, 60% of the class is from Northern Virginia. Another 20% is from other parts of the state.

Competition for students in Northern Virginia and the greater National Capital Region is fierce, Burge said, and overall high school graduations are expected to take a sharp decline after 2025.

The good news, he said, is that more local students are considering Mason as a first choice.

“This particular freshman class is coming in with high expectations for Mason,” Burge said. “They are going to hold us accountable for providing a high-quality education, which they were promised and expect. I think that’s a wonderful thing for us.”