Prodded by cutbacks in state funds, George Mason University has sharply reduced plans for new graduate programs and will concentrate on computer technology and its undergraduate liberal arts core.
The public university, established in Fairfax in 1972, also is raising admissions standards, officials said, because limits in state funds have forced it to turn away more applicants than in previous years.
Last fall George Mason rejected 35 percent of those who applied to the university, compared to 20 percent a year earlier. Average Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores for its freshman class rose 34 points.
"We're trying to take advantage of a disadvantage and set our priorities," said George W. Johnson, president of the university, where enrollment has climbed to almost 15,000 students. "We're trying to set a pattern for the institution and aim ourselves at the problems and opportunities of our region.
"We weren't growing for growth's sake, but we certainly were growing a lot," he said. "Now we're being forced to pause and make choices."
The changes at George Mason were prompted by a 5 percent cut in state appropriations for higher education ordered last spring by Gov. Charles S. Robb because the recession had reduced tax revenues. Earlier this month, Robb proposed cuts and a salary freeze for next year, amounting to what George Mason officials say is almost a 9 percent cut from what the legislature had voted.
If the trims are approved, state spending at George Mason, which grew rapidly for a decade, will go up just modestly from $22.3 million last year to $24.3 million this year and $25.1 million in 1984.
Other state colleges in Virginia are facing similarly tight times, along with many public and private colleges across the country.
Barry Dorsey, associate director of the Virginia State Council of Higher Education, said George Mason is the first school in the state to announce major changes in its plans. Dorsey said several colleges, including Virginia Tech, have asked the governor to approve an extra tuition increase. He said Old Dominion University in Norfolk is reducing faculty size in line with an enrollment decline.
Under a plan approved this week by George Mason's governing board of visitors, the university has canceled or postponed for at least two or three years six new academic programs scheduled to start next fall and already approved by the state council. Five other programs submitted to the council for the fall of 1984 have been withdrawn.
Dorsey said it was the first time since the state agency was established in 1956 that any university has canceled and withdrawn such a long list of new programs.
"Obviously, they realized that they can't offer all things to all students," Dorsey said, "and they are taking steps to specialize. They have to live within the budget parameters set by the state."
The programs being canceled for next fall include master's degrees in social work, international affairs, and finance. For 1984, the list of planned programs being dropped includes a doctorate in applied sociology, and master's degrees in chemistry, energy exploration, and anthropology.
The university is also putting on indefinite hold plans being developed for eight more doctorates, five more master's degrees, and bachelor's programs in two more fields.
Helen Ackerman, George Mason's director of public relations, said the school is proposing two new programs for 1984, both tied to computers, a master in systems engineering and a Ph.D. in information technology. "That's the direction of high technology in which we want to go," she said.
Ackerman said the university also was carrying out plans to strengthen its undergraduate liberal arts curriculum, and to improve programs in public affairs and the performing arts, none of which would require major increases in state funds.
George Mason, she said, has moved up its application deadline for undergraduate admissions from June 1 to March 1. For the first time, she said, the process will be more selective with the university accepting the strongest applicants first. In the past, she said, George Mason admitted most students soon after they applied if they met minimum standards.
The university's current total enrollment of 14,930 is up about 5 percent over a year ago, compared to increases averaging close to 10 percent annually over the previous four years. The students are mostly commuters, except for about 1,000 who live in dorms. About half attend part time.
Tuition and fees this year are $1,176. That amount is about average for state universities but it is less than a quarter of the cost of many private colleges, such as George Washington and American universities, which had enrollment declines.
Despite the sharp gain in SAT scores at George Mason, the averages for this year's freshmen--523 in math and 472 in the verbal part of the test--are still about 100 points below those at the University of Virginia in each subject. But the scores are higher than at many major state universities, including the University of Maryland. There the average total SAT score rose 12 points last fall to 982, but was less than the 995 at George Mason.
"We're a state university, and we do have to serve the people of Northern Virginia," Ackerman said. "If we don't have all the resources we want, we have to start cutting, and it's not likely that we're going to cut from the top."