Mason considered highly affordable compared to other universities

Under its new rating system, the U.S. Department of Education gave Mason high marks in affordability (photo courtesy of U.S. Department of Education).

George Mason University received high marks on a new affordability rating by the U.S Department of Education.

The information is included in the Department of Education’s “College Scorecards,” in which the costs of various universities across the country were measured and compared.

Mason was deemed as a relatively low-cost university, with students paying an average of $11,659 per year for tuition. Moreover, the loan default rate at Mason is 2.6 percent, 10.8 percent below the national average.

The “College Scorecard” was created to share better information with families about college value and affordability. Although the scorecard does not explicitly explain where money in each university is allocated, it does begin to promote the idea of college cost transparency. Also, it addresses what it means, financially, to send students to college.

“The [answer of] how we are relatively low cost is I think we’ve avoided some of the extra layers of administration that some universities have. This is not all good because it means that we are stretched somewhat thin sometimes,” said Provost Peter Stearns. “We have a relatively efficient use of facilities, particularly here in Fairfax, so those are some factors that I think help explain relatively low cost.”

In determining the college affordability ratings, analysts also looked at financial aid. Stearns said that Mason is not able to give as much money in comparison to need as the university would like, which does impact the overall score.

The scorecard did indicate however that between the years 2007 to 2009, tuition  increased by five  percent.

“I think it was mainly a response [to] the reduction in public funding, and obviously this was a period, this is ’07-’09, this was largely before the economic crisis, so it wasn’t dramatic state reduction, but I guess it was mainly in response to lower levels of state funding,” Stearns said.

It was also noted that Mason students pay off loans at a rate of around $193 per month, whereas several of Virginia’s other public universities pay around $200 per month or more.

“It is our understanding that students at Mason tend to borrow less in Federal Loan funds than students at other public Virginia institutions. This results in a lower monthly payment,” Kim Shumadine, the compliance officer in the Office of Student Financial Aid, said in an email.

Shumadine believes that a number of factors can explain low borrowing rates.

First, the Office of Student Financial Aid is active in teaching students on borrowing money in a smart manner. Second, there is a large number of students who save money by living off-campus or at home. Third, because Mason is affordable, “students do not always need to borrow their maximum loan eligibility,” said Shumadine.

The issues of affordability and increases in tuition also bring about the issue of cost transparency. Stearns is a proponent of university cost transparency and holds open forums in which tuition policy is discussed.

“In the period where we were driving tuition up somewhat more rapidly, we always had at least one open forum for students in the spring to explain where we were heading. And I would hope we should do that again this year,” Stearns said.

Stearns also said that he is always willing to discuss tuition with groups like student government, just as he did with his student advisory group.

The university may see changes down the line depending on whether cost structure is worked into President Obama’s policy agenda in his second term in office.

“I think, in the shorter run, where there is no policy in place is simply another way for us to advertise the fact that we are committed to accessibility; it’s part of the president’s [Cabrera] vision statement, and we mean it and keeping costs relatively low is a key feature of accessibility,” Stearns said. “So we would use this along with, you know, other comparisons of our cost structures to other universities. We would use this as an argument that we’re reasonably effective and responsible in our use of resources.”  

Cost transparency and college affordability are issues that Mason is aware of and that have greatly reached public attention.

“You know we need enough resources to maintain and hopefully enhance quality and at the same time we want to keep costs low. Those two principles are at war with each other and we try to do the best reconciliation that we can,” Stearns said.


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