Jan 3, 2011

Three Virginia Universities Drop ‘Commuter School’ Tag

Call it a case of “catching up with reality.” In the coming weeks, George Mason, Virginia Commonwealth, and Old Dominion hope to shed their dowdy commuter-school labels and officially transform into “residential” universities under a classification system administered by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

The reclassification is a big deal for all three schools. Every five years or so, Carnegie publishes classifications derived from national data on institutional characteristics and activities from sources such as the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES), the National Science Foundation, and the College Board.

These classifications take into account enrollment and instructional profiles, as well as the size and setting of all accredited, degree-granting colleges and universities in the U.S.

This time around, the number crunchers at Carnegie finally recognized what communities surrounding the three universities have known for quite some time: availability of undergraduate residential facilities has grown enormously with the construction of new residence halls and campus-based recreation centers.

At George Mason, the transformation is nothing short of astonishing as new construction has entirely changed the face of the Fairfax campus. Ten years ago, GMU had dormitory space for less than 3,000 students. Capacity is now at 5,400 with room for another 600 beds under construction and expected to be completed by 2012.

This means that about one-third of GMU’s full time undergrads are living on campus, which meets the Carnegie Foundation definition of “primarily residential.” Schools with higher percentages of students living on campus are considered “highly residential.”

In Richmond, VCU has almost doubled housing capacity over the past ten years and currently boasts of nearly 5,000 beds with construction underway for a new 459-bed residence hall scheduled to open in fall of 2012. Future plans include about $1 billion in new academic, medical, recreation, housing and parking facilities on both the Monroe Park and MCV campuses.

Similarly, university-owned housing at Old Dominion has “more than doubled in the past five years,” according to Carole Henry, executive director of housing and residence life. In addition, the university is partnering with private entities to build housing on the fringes of ODU that will effectively extend campus reach.

In guidebooks and online descriptions, the College Board already labels GMU a “residential campus,” reflecting obvious changes in Mason’s demographics. In the last decade, the number of out-of-state students at GMU has grown at nearly triple the rate of the in-state population. Mason also draws a relatively large number of international students coming from no less than 125 countries.

Once Carnegie officially acknowledges these transformations, GMU as well as ODU and VCU will finally be rid of the commuter-school tag, which school administrators feel prejudices students and families shopping for colleges.

“When people perceive a college to be a commuter campus, they perceive there are not opportunities to get involved,” said Jana Hurley, GMU’s executive director of housing and residence life in an interview for the Associated Press. “It takes time to change these perceptions, but those perceptions are shifting more rapidly because of the changes we’re making.”

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