George Mason University professors are in the 3rd percentile for salary compared to peer institutions after a July 2011 move placed Mason in a different group of peer institutions.

The move, which is designed to generate more money from the state for professor salaries, is supposed to help faculty deal with the high cost of living in Fairfax.

Percentiles, in this case, are used to compare the average salaries of peer institutions. Being in the 3rd percentile means that Mason professors are paid less than their colleagues at peer institutions.

According to the 2011-2012 Factbook published by Institutional Research and Reporting, the average salary at Mason in 2010 was $80,531. New York University, in the highest percentile, had an average salary of $111,891.

A peer group is composed of the universities that a given school considers to be its equals across many criteria such as enrollment and faculty-student ratios. According to the Office of Institutional Research and Reporting’s website, Mason considers universities such as NYU and Florida State University to be in its peer group.

The high cost of living in Fairfax was the driving force behind the change in peer groups. Provost Peter Stearns said Mason could not afford increases to professor salaries with school funds without raising tuition by a large amount, so they opted to change peer groups with special attention to cost of living.

It is the goal of the state of Virginia for each of its public universities to be in the 60th percentile of their peer groups. According to Stearns, this means that since Mason is now in the 3rd percentile, the state should presumably give it more funds when it allocates money for professor salaries.

“What should happen is when the state returns to giving salary increases, which it hasn’t done in four years, it should give us more than it gives any institution in the state,” Stearns said. “It should be allocating at least part of the money [to] moving the lowest institutions closer to the 60th percentile. I don’t know if they will, but that’s what they should do.”

According to Stearns, Mason made an out-of-cycle change when they changed their peer group last July.

Normally, universities in Virginia review their peer groups roughly every 10 years. Mason made its scheduled change in 2007 but was able to change its peer group in 2011 by negotiating with the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia.

“The peer institutions that we negotiate with SCHEV are used for them to help determine faculty salaries,” said Kris Smith, assistant provost of Institutional Research and Reporting. “We had made a request for [a] cost of living adjustment, and in the end they chose to allow us to select a new set of peer institutions that would take into account cost of living instead of doing a cost-of-living adjustment.”

According to Stearns, Mason negotiated with the state to add universities to its peer group that had similar cost of living, such as Boston College.

“We worked hard to get this new peer group,” Stearns said, “because it was the best way, in the long run, to get our cost of living situation reflected in what the state gives us for salaries. We wanted to get worse.”

Last year, Mason gave professors a salary increase with its own money, which displeased the state of Virginia, Stearns said. Mason and Virginia Tech were the only two public universities to do so.

Normally Mason waits for the state to contribute to salary increases because the state pays half the cost of the salary increase, but last year Mason officials chose to pay the entire cost due to the cost of living, Stearns said.

Virginia hasn’t given public universities funds for salary increases in four years, but they may be looking to do so in the near future.

“We have not heard the budget for next year. We don’t think a salary increase will be in the budget next year. There may be a bonus but not a salary increase,” Stearns said. “Some of the budget plans call for a salary increase in the following year. It’s a question of when the tax revenues begin to recover more fully, and the state can turn its attention to this issue.”

According to Stearns, though there is a high cost of living in Fairfax, and Mason is in the 3rd percentile of its peer group, the rate of faculty turnovers due to salary issues is relatively low when compared to other institutions in the state.