George Mason University, Fairfax, VA (visited 1/28/12)
I did not expect to like George Mason so much. For such a large public university (about 20,000 undergrads – the largest in Virginia), I think that it still has a very regional feel to it; I really only started hearing about it when I moved to Maryland. The comments were not the most favorable; people perceived it as the easy-to-get-into safety/back-up school. This may have been the case many years ago, but I don’t believe this still holds true. They accept just over half of their applicants, and now that I’ve visited, I can see why people (including a salutatorian I recently taught) chose George Mason over other, seemingly more prestigious options.
One of the benefits of the school is that it is young. It was founded in 1959 as a branch of the University of Virginia until they broke off and “went at it alone.” The admissions counselor said that being so young, the school can be flexible – instead of being stuck with what is already in place or being beholden to tradition, they can look at the job market, talk to alums about what worked and what didn’t, etc and plan accordingly. They are hugely innovative, and it’s clearly working for them in terms of what they can offer the students and how it’s affecting the upbeat culture on campus. Students are engaged and happy. I was on campus on a sunny, relatively warm Saturday in January. Students were out and about on campus, engaging with each other, and taking advantage of campus facilities.
Another benefit is its location. The self-enclosed campus is located not far outside of DC in a nice suburban area. For being so close to DC, I found it surprisingly easy to drive to and find parking. The students have easy access to the city. Shuttles take students to and from the metro stop near campus. The campus reflects a lot of the diversity in the city, as well: students from about 135 countries and almost every state study on campus. Additionally, students can cross-register for classes at Georgetown and most of the other DC area universities as long as the classes are in their majors.
Academics are strong, practical, and hands-on. Their Writing Across the Curriculum program ranks as one of the the Top 15 in the country, and the management and nursing programs are both in the top 15% in the nation. 96% of the classes are taught by professors rather than graduate students, and many of them are still active in their fields, bringing real-life practical knowledge and information into the classrooms. Classes have enrollments of about 25-35 students, giving students access to the professors as well as more discussion and hands-on based learning. Many majors require internships, and many students in those majors that do not require them still participate in an internship before graduation.
GMU is a test-optional for students who have a minimum of 3.5 GPA and in the top 50% of their graduating class, but students who do not submit SAT or ACT scores will NOT be considered for scholarships or the Honors College. They are also innovative and flexible in how students apply: they will accept a video essay with their application.
Freshmen are guaranteed housing, and 80% will live on campus. About 7% of the student population goes Greek.
One definite draw-back is the physical size of campus: it is huge, and walking across campus takes a very long time. There are a lot of shuttles and buses, but clearly this is something to keep in mind.