A Magazine for the George Mason University Community

A University Engaged

By Colleen Kearney Rich on May 8, 2012


Tyler Cowen

Can you imagine a Northern Virginia without George Mason University? It is hard to visualize, but the Mason Spirit turned to some experts for their views.

“The region would be much less diversified [without Mason] and not seen as having such a bright intellectual future,” postulates noted economist and Mason alumnus Tyler Cowen, BS Economics ’83, who was recently named to the top 100 Global Thinkers by Foreign Policy magazine. “Mason gives Northern Virginia identity and coherence. The mix of the immigrant student body, the shopping center look of campus, and the can-do, entrepreneurial spirit of the school mirror the surrounding area perfectly.”

He adds, “The future of the Northern Virginia region is not government spending but rather services, software, and innovation. A university is critical for excellence in those areas.”

Northern Virginia developer Milt Peterson agrees. “[Northern Virginia] just wouldn’t have developed to the degree that it has” without Mason, says Peterson, principal and founder of the Peterson Companies, one of the largest privately held real estate development companies in the region. “[Mason] facilitated a huge part of the growth, not just because it gave education to students who had potential, but it was able to bring together the elected officials, businesspeople, citizens, and academia, and say, ‘We are working together.’ That led to the tremendous growth.”

In the 40 years since the Virginia General Assembly separated the small college from its parent institution, the University of Virginia, Mason has worked hard to become an integral part of the region, not only by meeting the workforce needs of the burgeoning technology corridor that began to develop here, but by working with local governments to bring the arts and great facilities to this part of the state.

Stephen Fuller

The tremendous number of partnerships the university has forged with area businesses, local government, the education community, community health organizations, and the arts shows that Mason’s commitment to the region extends far beyond the number of diplomas conferred each year.

In many ways, Mason is an economic engine that powers growth. The university is a generator of jobs, a source of consumer spending and investment, and a host to students and visitors whose spending would not have been captured by Virginia and regional businesses in the absence of the university’s existence.

In a recent study, Mason economist Stephen Fuller, director of the university’s Center for Regional Analysis, found that the university’s total economic effect on the Washington, D.C., region in fiscal year 2010 was $1.6 billion—with Virginia seeing an impact of more than $1 billion. His study focused on the economic benefits generated by the university and also highlighted Mason as a desirable amenity in the region.

“Mason is an important source of economic activity within the local metropolitan area and state as employer, generator of personal income and business transactions, and a source of direct and indirect spending that spans the breadth of the regional and statewide economies,” says Fuller.

Quantifying the Economic Effect

Not unlike other universities, Mason generates jobs and income and does business with suppliers. Mason’s students buy goods and services from local merchants, and the university attracts visitors who in turn contribute to the local economy. Most of these benefits can be measured in dollar terms:

  • Payroll spending by the university, totaling $324.6 million, was the largest single source of economic effect, accounting for 69 percent of all university spending. Virginia captured 86.2 percent of that spending based on the residence of university employees.
  • Spending by students, retirees, and visitors was another large economic effect, accounting for $149.6 million in total spending with out-of-state students accounting for $45.6 million.
  • The university’s procurement of goods and services from vendors was also significant, totaling $122.4 million in spending with $63.5 million, or 45 percent of these purchases, being made from vendors located in the region.

In terms of providing jobs, Mason’s economic effect cannot be understated. Mason employed 5,598 full- and part-time workers in fiscal year 2010, with all but 28 of those workers residing in the Washington region. Plus, university spending supported another 16,612 nonuniversity jobs of which 8,914, or 54 percent, are estimated to have been held by area residents, generating an additional $490.3 million in new personal earnings for Washington-area workers.

In Virginia alone, spending by the university supported 9,944 jobs beyond those workers employed by Mason with an estimated 5,400, or 54 percent, of these jobs held by workers residing in the state. These jobs generated new personal earnings of $297 million in fiscal year 2010.

“The economic impacts reported here confirm that beyond its national and international reputation as a major academic and research institution, Mason is also an important and continuing force in the metropolitan area and state economies as an employer and source of income for the region’s residents and businesses,” says Fuller.

The Value of Immeasurables

Fuller is quick to point out that this study does not reflect many sources of economic impact that cannot be easily quantified on an annual basis—the immeasurables—that nevertheless represent important sources of local economic benefits. According to Fuller, these qualities also help distinguish Mason from other institutions and emphasize the university’s impact on the region.

As examples, he gives the following:

  • As Mason’s main mission is as a place for education and discovery, the transfer of education and skills to the surrounding community makes the university a critical part of the metropolitan Washington, D.C., area’s economy.
  • The education and workforce training the university provides is also important in attracting companies to the region. Access to Mason faculty and researchers is another draw. Furthermore, the intellectual property generated at Mason contributes to the region’s business base and its competitiveness.
  • The university’s charitable benefits also make Mason a desirable amenity in the region as the in-kind and voluntary services provided by the university, its staff, and its students help the local community in many ways.

The number of ways that Mason engages with the communities surrounding it are too numerous to name. A select few are cited in the sidebar to the right. To see a more comprehensive list, please check out the university’s Office of Community Relations website at communityrelations.gmu.edu/engaged/index.asp.

School of Nursing students working at the Jeanie Schmidt Free Clinic.

Mason’s contributions to quality of life in the Washington metropolitan region, together with the billions of dollars the university contributes to the economy, truly make the university an important and engaged partner with the local community.

Sidebar: Community Partnerships

  • The School of Nursing is partnering with the Jeanie Schmidt Free Clinic in Fairfax County, Virginia, to improve access to health care for uninsured people with chronic diseases. Mason’s support includes primary and mental health care, patient education, and clinical and behavioral outcome evaluations.
  • Each summer, aspiring scientists from area high schools have the opportunity to work beside Mason scientists and researchers on actual research. Many of these students go on to present their work at national conferences and have won prestigious science fellowships and awards.
  • Mason’s Office of Community Relations, in partnership with the National Energy Education Development Project, launched an environmental awareness program for Northern Virginia elementary school students that features the lovable and life-size mascot Gunston. This entertaining Mason ambassador teaches students about the importance of going green.
  • An alliance among Mason, the U.S. Small Business Administration, and local sponsors throughout Virginia, the Virginia Small Business Development Center is an organization of 29 local offices where entrepreneurs can seek counseling, training, and other resources on how to best grow their businesses.
  • With the help of a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, Mason is partnering with 47 Virginia school districts, six universities, and the state’s Department of Education to improve science teaching and student learning in high-need schools throughout the commonwealth.
  • Students from Mason’s School of Law provide free civil legal services to active-duty troops who otherwise could not afford a lawyer, a first in American legal education that is now being copied at other law schools. Dozens of local law firms help supervise students and provide advice and mentoring.

James Greif and Jason Jacks contributed to this story.


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