A Magazine for the George Mason University Community

Meeting Students Where They Are

By Mason Spirit contributor on April 8, 2020

It is estimated that there are more than a million Virginians with some college education but no degree. The Commonwealth of Virginia is interested in removing the barriers to a degree for these citizens, and so is George Mason University. So, what exactly is keeping this large group of potential students from investing in their education and re-entering the classroom? Some point to cost and time. Others think it might be the classroom itself.

Student in a classroom at Fairfax Campus. Photo by Creative Services.

“I think younger students can have a challenging time understanding the value of a college education. When they see all the ways they can learn new things online—whether it is through YouTube, LinkedIn, or many other online sources—it’s a hard sell for young people who also have financial constraints,” says Janette Kenner Muir, associate provost for academic initiatives and services.

When Mason adopted its strategic plan in 2014, it set goals for creating accessible pathways to degrees and new delivery formats to meet the needs of a diverse group of students. In fall 2016, Mason Provost S. David Wu established the Office of Academic Innovation and New Ventures to formalize the exploration, launch, and maintenance of new educational ventures at Mason. The team in this office leads the university in forging partnerships that accelerate the development of accessible academic pathways for Mason’s student population, which includes first-generation students, adult learners, and active-duty military and veterans.

“We have to change our assumptions about the kind of students who are in our classes and who attend college these days,” says Muir, who is a member of the New Ventures team. “If we were a small, four-year private [college], we’d have a very different demographic. But the reality is that our students are often older, and they juggle many things in their lives. We have to find ways to meet them where they’re at, and we also need to think more about how they learn and what modalities work best for different individuals.”

Many of the changes taking place in higher education have been spurred on by the Commonwealth of Virginia as initiatives of governors or the legislature. Since the strategic plan was unveiled, Mason has excelled in improving the transfer process and developing online degree programs and is receiving accolades for both.

Improving the Transfer Process

Of the 80 percent of community college students nationally who say they want to complete a bachelor’s degree, only 20 percent actually do so. Mason has worked to remove the obstacles to a four-year degree with the creation of the ADVANCE Program, a partnership between Mason and Northern Virginia Community College that provides a more seamless path from community college to a bachelor’s degree, saving students time and money.

Just a few years old, ADVANCE is quickly becoming a national model for other states. In 2018, the Chronicle of Higher Education named the NOVA-to-Mason path “one of the nation’s most successful transfer partnerships,” and the National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition also recognized the partnership with its 2019 John N. Gardner Institutional Excellence for Students in Transition Award.

Now, everyone wants to know Mason’s secret. Muir says she is often approached at conferences by people who want to know how Mason got the faculty to work together, and she will warn them that it is not “an easy lift.”

“We are fortunate to have a very engaged faculty, and we’ve held summits where faculty get to sit down together and have deeper conversations about pathways and learning outcomes. We’ve been able to watch some wonderful ‘aha’ moments happen,” says Muir. “We also are fortunate to have a high level of trust among the leadership of these two institutions—and that has power.”

The commonwealth has also caught on. One of the statewide projects that Muir is working on is called Transfer Virginia, which is an initiative of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV), the state’s coordinating body for higher education. SCHEV is in the process of approving what they are calling “passport” credits and a 30-credit uniform certificate.

Every Virginia community college will offer these 16 passport credits, which will transfer to any four-year institution in the state. In addition, the passport credits will be offered online and made available in high schools that offer dual enrollment. The 30-credit certificate is expected to cover most of the general education requirements.

Muir is quick to point out that the new SCHEV program is legislatively driven. Virginia legislators had been getting complaints about the way credits transfer from community colleges to the state’s four-year schools. “The goal is to make this transfer process more transparent and accessible for students,” says Muir. “Everybody’s engaged in making the transfer experience better because when you look at the general data, students are losing at least 15 credits when they transfer—and that’s on the low end.”

One of the Nation’s ‘Biggest Movers’ in Online Education

Another state-supported initiative aimed at Virginians with some college credits but no degree is the Online Virginia Network. Cofounded by Mason with Old Dominion University in 2017, the network now includes the Virginia Community College System and brings a selection of George Mason and Old Dominion online programs to one web portal, allowing busy adult learners to find and enroll in high-demand degree programs and finish their bachelor’s degrees online.

Students studying outside of Fenwick Library on the Fairfax Campus. Photo by Evan Cantwell/Creative Services

Mason has also entered into a partnership with Wiley Education Services to help expedite the creation of online degree programs. Mason was recently featured in an article from Inside Higher Ed for being one of the “biggest movers” for online education in 2018.

According to data on postsecondary enrollment released by the U.S. Department of Education, 12,753 Mason students enrolled in at least one online class in 2018, with 2,164 of that number taking every class online. This is a 25 percent increase from 2017’s numbers. Currently, eight out of 10 undergraduate students at Mason take at least one online course.

“Expanding our online presence is the right move for Mason,” says Michelle Marks, MS ’93, PhD ’98, vice president for academic innovation and new ventures. “There is definitely an urgency here. Our students are wanting more online options and our region is counting on us to provide educational access for our diverse student population. We’ve made some big moves in the online space, and we still have more to do. It’s not like online is the future. Online is now.”

And the online programs are also being recognized. In the U.S. News & World Report 2020 online rankings, seven Mason programs made it into the top 50, with several others making significant gains over last year.

Mason’s special education master’s program is ranked 10th, up from 16th last year. The master’s program in accounting is ranked 19th nationally, up from 39th last year and 56th in 2018, and the computer information technology master’s program, at No. 24, is ranked in the top 25 for the third consecutive year.

“Online programs are now mainstream,” Marks says. “Students across the country are increasingly choosing online. Rankings like these are indicators that Mason’s programs are strong, and we are on the right path.”

By the Numbers

Total enrollment 2018: 37,316

100% Online Students 2018: 2,164

Partially Online Students: 10,589

Total online enrollment 2018: 12,753

Total online enrollment 2017: 10,199

% increase 2017 to 2018: 25%

Total online enrollment 2015: 7,901

% increase 2015 to 2018: 61.4%


Mary Lee Clark, Damian Cristodero, John Hollis, and Colleen Kearney Rich, MFA ’95, contributed to this story.


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