FAIRFAX, Va. — By most measures, George Mason University has been on a roll since its founding in 1972. Its academic programs have grown, its athletic program is synonymous with "Cinderella" and those all-important rankings from U.S. News and World Report have dubbed it a top up-and-coming university.
But one label continues to sting: commuter campus.
That description may be wiped away next month as a national research foundation is expected to reclassify George Mason and two other public universities in Virginia as "primarily residential."
The reclassification is a big deal to George Mason, which believes the public perception of a sleepy commuter campus is off base.
"It's one of those intangible things. It shows there's a level of investment on our part to make people want to live here for nine or 10 months out of the year," university spokesman Dan Walsch said of the anticipated reclassification.
At George Mason, the change has been fueled in part by a construction boom. A decade ago, dormitories held space for fewer 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, said Jana Hurley, the university's executive director of housing and residence life.
That means that about a third of George Mason's full-time undergraduate students are living on campus, a high enough percentage to be classified as "primarily residential" by Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Schools with higher percentages of students living on campus are considered "highly residential."
Demand for housing has changed as the school's demographics have changed. George Mason originally drew the overwhelming majority of its students from northern Virginia, and those students could live at home and commute.
Now, the school draws students from all parts of the state, and an increasing percentage of out-of-state students. In the last decade, the number of out-of-state students at George Mason has grown at nearly triple the rate of the in-state student body.
George Mason students say the difference is palpable. Junior Colleen Mattingly said the feel on campus is different from even two years ago.
"More people are staying on campus over weekends. There's less of a commuter campus feel than when I was a freshman," said Mattingly, a government and international politics major, as she signed up students to participate in a Habitat for Humanity club in the school's bustling student union.
Junior Michael Hucker transferred to George Mason from James Madison University in Harrisonburg, which has a reputation as something of a party school. He said the Fairfax campus is just as vibrant as the one he left.
Another driving factor, according to Hucker: Off-campus housing in surrounding Fairfax County, the wealthiest in the nation, is prohibitively expensive for the average college student. And very little of the available rental housing is built or designed for college students.
With its suburban location, George Mason lacks a row of bars or an off-campus business district catering to students. As a result, many students say they take public transportation to nearby hotspots in Arlington or Washington. The university does its best to take advantage of its proximity to cultural and entertainment options in the region, Hurley said. One recent popular excursion: fleets of shuttle buses took students in October to the "Rally to Restore Sanity" on the National Mall.
On campus, the school's basketball team is a popular entertainment option. The school has done its best to capitalize on the team's improbable 2006 trip to the Final Four, which increased George Mason's national profile and led to a spike in admissions from across the country.
Old Dominion University in Norfolk and Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, are also expected to be reclassified next month by the Carnegie Foundation as "primarily residential." As a result, all 15 of Virginia's four-year public institutions will be considered either primarily residential or highly residential.
Old Dominion President John Broderick said that not only has on-campus housing grown significantly, but the university has partnered with private entities to build housing on the outskirts of campus that contributes to the campus setting.
"I think any university will tell its vibrancy is enhanced by having a cadre of students who live and study on campus," Broderick said.
The Carnegie Foundation issues the classifications every five years. Spokeswoman Gay Clyburn cautioned the reclassifications won't be finished until next month.
Typically universities eagerly anticipate the foundation's classifications that define universities as "research institutions" or liberal arts schools. She said it's somewhat unusual for a school to make hay over its classification as a residential campus.
For George Mason, though, shedding the commuter school image is important.
"When people perceive a college to be a commuter campus, they perceive there are not opportunities to get involved," Hurley said. "It takes time to change those perceptions, but those perceptions are shifting more rapidly because of the changes we're making."