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Ballooning graduate programs look for way to control growth

RIchard Wheeler
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Graduate education

While administrators are looking at ways to control growth in graduate programs, any changes that are implemented will not affect students who already have assistantships, said Richard Wheeler, vice provost.

Faced with declining state support and increasing numbers of graduate students, campus administrators are looking at ways to fund graduate education and to manage enrollment in graduate programs.

In the spring semester 2000, there were 7,433 graduate students on campus; this semester, there are 9,050, an increase of 1,617 students, according to the Division of Management Information.

“Our graduate programs are growing and have grown pretty steadily over the past several years,” said Richard Wheeler, vice provost. “And we’re at a point where growth is not a good thing for the university, so we need to find a way to control that growth.”

Some graduate programs have ballooned beyond what units can support, given their resources, their graduation and time-to-degree rates, and other markers of graduate-program quality.

The challenge facing the campus is how to cover the direct costs of educating graduate students when it is not receiving tuition or other support. Campus administrators are looking for means of empowering the college deans to limit the number of graduate appointments that generate tuition waivers.

The Fellowship Office of the Graduate College collects tuition or payments in lieu of tuition from external funding agencies that provide it – but “there are several very prestigious fellowship programs that don’t, and we don’t want to lose those students, so we need to leave enough room in our system to make sure that we can capture those students where possible,” Wheeler said.

Many external fellowship-funding agencies provide support directly to the student, but provide no funds to the campus unit incurring costs in educating that student.

Likewise, similar problems arise with endowed fellowships, which provide stipends to the students but nothing to the university units that provide classrooms, laboratories, faculty members and other components of their educational experience.

“The real question is: ‘Should we expect donors who are contributing to endowments that will fund graduate fellowships to help pick up part of the cost of educating that student as well as the stipend?’ ” Wheeler said. “We would love to be able to capture some of those costs because the costs are very real. But we’re kind of fellowship-poor here on campus, and we don’t want to discourage people who otherwise could be persuaded to donate a significant amount of money to endowed graduate fellowships.”

The committee also is considering closing a loophole with regard to gift funds and private contracts that pay stipends for research assistants but heretofore have been exempt from tuition remission to cover the cost of the students’ education.

Over the next few weeks, Wheeler said he and the committee plan to continue discussions with campus units and complete a set of recommendations.

“If there is support for them at that point, then we will move ahead to implementation,” Wheeler said. “There will be some phasing in. It will not affect students that already have assistantships. Indeed, for nearly all students with assistantships and most programs that support their teaching and research with assistantships, the proposed changes will have no effect at all. Every effort has been made to preserve the good work done by the current policies on graduate tuition waivers.

“This process has been extensively consultative. We’ve tried to provide assurances that we are not out to take away people’s waivers. That’s just not our task. Our task is to put together a policy that works better than the one that we have now.”

Two proposals that were under discussion – one to increase minimum waiver generating assistantship from 25 percent to 33 percent time, and a proposal to create a category called “tuition-supported” assistantships that would not generate tuition waivers – have been put on hold and are no longer being considered, Wheeler said.

The proposal to increase the 25-percent assistantships was strongly opposed by many master’s level programs that depend heavily on 25-percent assistantship appointments and by the Graduate Employees Organization, which represents many graduate students on campus.

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