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Big Mason or Bigger Mason

Big Mason or Bigger Mason

As a University, we’re about to turn from the process of crafting a new strategic vision, to an actual planning process based on that vision. One of the most interesting planning targets has to be size of student body. The President’s Vision statement clearly implies growth, but there are no specifics attached. It’s time to begin thinking about the more detailed process required.

Our current plan calls for about a 3,500 headcount growth between now and 2020, pushing us toward 38,000 students. All major categories except Law are open for modest expansion under this scenario: a bit of annual freshman, transfer and Master’s level growth, plus similarly modest improvements in retention. The result, again by 2020, would be about 420 more degrees awarded annually than is currently the case.

As we discuss these projections further, and link them to plans within the academic units (where appetites and potentials for growth will continue to vary), we need to surface a number of data points. We need a clear sense of demographics, particularly but not exclusively in Virginia, as these impact both high school and community college graduate numbers. We need a clearer sense than I, at least, now have of our potential growth in distance education, particularly as we begin to launch, next fall, the new Mason Online programs aimed strongly at out of state, even international, student audiences. We need consideration of continued pressures within the state to expand degree awards (100,000 new degrees).

My own guess is that, as we think about this topic further over the next few months, we may opt for a somewhat more ambitious agenda, particularly when Online is factored in but even simply in terms of venturing a larger share of the Commonwealth’s degree goals. New and established programs in areas like engineering may suggest needs and capacities that similarly suggest a larger total.

Against greater ambition, of course, come concerns about the funding base and related cautions about facilities expansion. The planning process must also include appropriate specifics about in- and out of state mix, another key area in terms of funding streams.

Mason has been a growth institution for most of its history, and while the experience has had its stresses, on the whole it has clearly benefited the University’s interests. We’re clearly committed to the process going forward. But now it’s time to move from that general sense to the challenge of more precise expectations. It should be a fascinating discussion.