George Mason University joins national effort to improve graduation rate of low-income students

Virginia Secretary of Education Atif Qarni speaks during a launch event for the ADVANCE partnership between George Mason and Northern Virginia Community College. Photo by Lathan Goumas.

George Mason University has joined the American Talent Initiative, a collaboration of the nation’s top 120 four-year institutions with a shared goal of enrolling, supporting and graduating 50,000 additional talented, lower-income students across high-graduation rate colleges and universities by 2025.

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 already have a 70 percent graduation rate for their students within six years. 

Mason is already on an upward trend of graduating low-income students; Mason Pell Grant recipients graduate at nearly the same level as non-Pell grant recipients. Through programs like ADVANCEand the Early Identification Program, low-income students receive the assistance they need early on. 

"In other words, this is a no brainer for Mason—it's what we do,” said David Burge, vice president for enrollment management.

Ten years ago, people thought that lower-income students weren’t getting offers of admissions to colleges and universities, said Burge, and even though that has improved, many students still face the difficulty of paying for their education.

One way Mason keeps education affordable is through the ADVANCE program with Northern Virginia Community College, which is expected to help approximately 500 students transfer seamlessly from NOVA to Mason in 100 aligned curricular pathways this fall. ADVANCE students are given the support they need to complete their bachelor’s degree within four years. 

"ADVANCE is an obvious example of how an institution can expand the number of low-income transfer students, drop the overall costs and then improve those metrics toward graduation with features like success coaching and streamlining the process of admissions and financial aid,” said Burge. 

Starting with primary school education, Mason’s Early Identification Program (EIP) collaborates with schools in Virginia to empower students to achieve their goals of pursuing higher education through civic engagement, leadership training and academic and personal development. The program has more than 1,600 graduates, many of whom were the first in their families to attend a college or university. 

Additionally, Mason has one of the lowest three-year loan default rates in the nation averaging around 2.3% compared to the national average of 7.1%.

To reach the goals set by the American Talent Initiative, Mason plans to increase fundraising efforts and add additional support for low-income students, such as success coaching and other services that serve the whole student, since low-income students often have barriers outside of the institution that can impact their education. 

"We will continue to do better than what we've done before and look forward to sharing Mason’s successes with the other participating universities who are not as successful in recruiting and graduating these students,” said Burge.