In Search of Excellence
Graduate Students Hold the Key
By Charlotte Crystal
Top graduate students are a hot commodity.
“Good grad students definitely bring us recognition, and they’ll do so more and more as we work to strengthen our reputation as a top research university,” said Roseanne Ford, the University of Virginia’s associate vice president for research and graduate studies. “Excellent faculty want to work with excellent grad students. They help with recruitment and retention of top faculty.”
Graduate students — 4,699 were enrolled at U.Va. in the fall of 2005, accounting for about one-fourth of the University’s total student body — also enhance the quality of the undergraduate experience.
“They serve as role models and help get undergrads involved in research,” Ford said. “They also make enthusiastic teachers.”
But cutbacks in state support for higher education, limited federal grant funding and attractive financial offers from private universities have presented U.Va. with a daunting challenge in recruiting and retaining top graduate students.
Most research universities offer financial support with the most generous grad student packages covering the cost of tuition and fees and providing a living stipend, health insurance and sometimes funding for travel as well. But the size of fellowships varies widely among universities and even among departments within the same university.
The result is that competition for the most promising graduate students pits prestigious graduate schools, often located at private universities backed by strong endowments and substantial outside research funding, against public schools and other institutions with more limited resources.
For decades, U.Va. has been fortunate. The University’s setting, its proximity to Washington, D.C., its architecture and history, its strong faculty and collegial atmosphere have compensated for limited funding for graduate student support. But given the institution’s national ambitions, coupled with the rising costs of living and tuition, that is no longer enough.
“Over the last 15 years, U.Va. has not been able to make much headway in improving its graduate programs,” wrote the authors of the 2002 U.Va. Faculty Senate Ad Hoc Committee Report. “When its efforts are placed in the national context, it is clear that chronic underfunding of its programs has played a major role in limiting its progress.”
In recent years, inadequate financial packages were cited by 40 percent of the top candidates who declined offers of admission from the University’s Graduate School of Arts & Sciences for more attractive offers from competing schools.
The long and short of it is: “We want to be able to compete more effectively for the top students,” Ford said.
The 2002 Faculty Senate report estimated that $10 million a year is needed for graduate student support. The report’s authors urged the creation of a $200 million endowment for this purpose and noted that Stanford University launched an effort to raise a similar amount for graduate student support in 1997 — nine years ago.
“We would love to provide competitive financial packages to all our grad students, but right now we can’t,” Ford said.
Eighty-five percent of U.Va. doctoral candidates enrolled in the fall of 2004 received some type of financial support — only 387 out of 2,427 received none, according to data gathered by Ford’s office. And in 26 out of 44 departments, more than 90 percent of the students received a stipend. (The most common reasons cited for students not receiving stipends were staying beyond the typical time-to-degree in the program, external employment, failure to maintain good academic standing and insufficient funds.)
U.Va. helps graduate students pay for their education in several ways — with funding from outside research grants, by facilitating access to federal loan programs, through departmental grants and by budgeting for wages paid to graduate research assistants, graduate teaching assistants and graduate administrative assistants. Financial support is granted according to a broad array of criteria, including financial need, academic achievement, leadership, character, creativity, promise in a given field, enthusiasm and dedication. In 2001-2002, U.Va. also began providing health insurance subsidies for graduate research and teaching assistants.
Average living stipends for doctoral students vary greatly among the University’s departments and are influenced by many factors, including the market forces associated with each discipline. Departmental averages range from $9,422 to $22,113, though for individual students the differences may be even larger, from less than $1,000 to more than $30,000, according to data gathered by the Office of the Associate Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies. The scope of covered costs for graduate students likewise varies from one individual to another, from a one-time payment, to several years of tuition and fees, to years of tuition and fees plus a living stipend.
During the 2004-2005 academic year, graduate research assistants at U.Va. earned more than $14 million in financial support, according to Ford’s office. Graduate students in science and engineering earned 96 percent of that amount. Graduate teaching assistants earned $7 million in wages for the same period, with graduate students in the humanities earning 37 percent of the total and graduate students in math and science earning 32 percent. Departments with research assistants usually paid higher stipends — the average GRA earned $14,166 – than departments offering teaching assistantships, which paid an average of $8,826 per year.
How does that compare with the support offered by schools competing for the same graduate students? According to a national study, U.Va.’s graduate stipends are all over the map, but never at the top.
In 2003-2004, The Chronicle of Higher Education conducted a national study of graduate teaching and research assistantships at 83 doctorate-granting institutions. That year, U.Va.’s stipends averaged $20,250 for research assistants in biology (placing U.Va.’s biology department sixth among 11 peer institutions), $14,000 for teaching assistants in English (placing it seventh among 14 peer institutions), and $9,433 for teaching assistants in sociology (placing it last among 14 peers), the study showed.
CLOSING THE FUNDING GAP
Efforts are under way to bolster graduate student support around Grounds.
Though limited in scope, the Faculty Senate Dissertation-Year Fellowship Program, launched during the 2001-2002 academic year, has helped. Under the program, about six graduate students receive a year of full financial support — tuition, fees, insurance and a stipend — a value of approximately $25,000.
Since assuming her position in the summer of 2004, Ford has launched three new programs to attract and retain top grad students. These initiatives include two programs that reimburse travel expenses for members of the University community willing to combine research talks with graduate student recruiting: one for senior doctoral students interested in traveling to their alma maters, and the second for faculty, particularly junior faculty, interested in speaking at other institutions, especially historically black colleges and universities.
A third program is now in the first year of a three-year pilot to enhance departmental offers to top doctoral candidates. The Fellowship Enhancement for Outstanding Doctoral Candidates provides stipend supplements of up to $10,000 a year for a maximum of three years for up to 10 doctoral candidates. The current recipients of the fellowship are Tiffany Stull, French literature; Sara Boyd, civil engineering; Julianna Gallardo, Spanish-American literature; and Theresa Bankston, chemical engineering. [See sidebar.]
“The University is at a turning point and its future success depends heavily on graduate students,” said Tom Bryan, a doctoral candidate in European history and immediate past president of U.Va.’s Graduate Student Council. Regardless of what drew graduate students to U.Va., money matters, he said.
“Living costs are going up. Tuition and research fees are going up. The out-of-pocket cost of health insurance is going up,” Bryan said. “Careers in the arts and humanities offer limited financial prospects so there’s little incentive to take on heavy debt loads. Grad students are a constituency that has been neglected and needs attention.”
Ford is working to see that they get the attention and funding they deserve.
|Fellowship Enhancement for Outstanding Doctoral Candidates
|Name: Tiffany Stull
Hometown: Libertyville, Ill.
Field: French literature
Undergraduate education: University of Chicago, A. B., French literature
Other graduate programs considered: New York University, Columbia University, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Chose U.Va. because: “I asked people at Chicago where the best programs were and they mentioned U.Va. Also, I had read an article written by [U.Va. French professor] John Lyons when I was writing a paper for my bachelor’s and I really liked it.”
She was nominated because: “Her scholarship is exceptionally promising and her serious interest in the material culture of rare books made her a good fit, not only with our department, but with the University’s other resources, such as the Rare Book School.” –Janet Horne, associate professor of French
Name: Sara Boyd
Hometown: Asheville, N.C.
Field: Civil engineering, contaminant hydrology
Undergraduate education: Florida State University, B.S., civil engineering
Other graduate programs considered: Georgia Institute of Technology, Pennsylvania State University, North Carolina State University
Chose U.Va. because: Faculty, location, fellowships. “N.C. State has a bigger program, with more research potential in environmental studies, my area of interest. The two schools offered equivalent amounts of money. At U.Va., they assigned me to an advisor, but said the research area was my choice. Right now, I’m doing research in chemical engineering. With my fellowship, I have a lot of flexibility. I’m free for any advisor. They do not have to support me on their research grant. Some students have research grants that stipulate they can’t change the research they do. I would probably not be able to do the work I’m doing now if not for the fellowship.”
She was nominated because: “She is well positioned to become a licensed professional engineer, which is unusually important in our field. … In addition to her bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, Ms. Boyd has also gained significant professional experience for an undergraduate, both of which are requirements for registration [as a professional].” –Teresa Culver, associate professor of civil engineering
|Name: Julianna Gallardo
Hometown: Sacramento, Calif.
Field: Spanish-American literature
Undergraduate education: UC-Berkeley, B.A., Spanish; UC-Davis, M.A., Spanish
Other graduate programs considered: University of California-Berkeley, New York University, University of California-Santa Barbara, Princeton University, Harvard University
Chose U.Va. because: “First, it was the highest-ranked program I had applied to, so I was thrilled when I got in! Second, I met U.Va. alumna Emily Hind while studying in Mexico City last year, and I was really impressed with the paper she gave on Mexican author Rosario Castellanos. She encouraged me to apply and spoke very highly of the Ph.D. program in Spanish here, and of the professors in the department.”
She was nominated because: “She is clearly an enthusiastic student dedicated to studying contemporary Spanish-American literature; she [has taken] classes as a non-degree student at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico in order to learn more about Mexican literature.” –David Haberly, professor of Spanish
|Name: Theresa Bankston
Hometown: Albany, Ga.
Field: Chemical engineering
Undergraduate education: Florida State University, B.S., biochemistry
Other graduate programs considered: Georgia Institute of Technology, Johns Hopkins University, Virginia Polytechnic and State University, Lehigh University
Chose U.Va. because: “First, my undergraduate degree is in a different field than the graduate degree I am seeking, so I needed a department that would be flexible with entering requirements. Also, I liked the small size and the warmth of the department and of the community. The grant definitely factored into my decision to come here. As a single mother, I found it next to impossible to afford living costs with the base stipend.”
She was nominated because: “Theresa has worked at Merck Inc. since her graduation. The few entering graduate students that we have coming from industry…improve the intellectual environment by being excellent models for the rest of our graduate students.” –Erik Fernandez, associate professor of chemical engineering
|Average Stipends for U.Va. Graduate Assistants, 2004-2005
|SOURCE: 2004-2005 Analysis of Graduate Student Stipends, U.Va. Office of the Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies.
Trends in Student Aid
- Total student aid, from all sources including loans, work-study and federal tax benefits, doubled in inflation-adjusted dollars from 1994-1995 to 2004-2005.
- Grant aid to undergraduate and graduate students increased by 86 percent after inflation over the decade 1994-1995 to 2004-2005.
- 86 percent of all grant aid goes to undergraduates.
- Grant aid from all sources averages $4,500 for full-time students, graduate and undergraduate.
- Almost half of student aid — 47 percent — used by graduate and undergraduate students is federal loans.
- 65 percent of the funds borrowed to pay for education — federal and nonfederal loans — is for undergraduate study and 35 percent is for graduate and professional study.
- Between 2001-2002 and 2004-2005, the percentage of graduate student funding from grants decreased from 29 percent to 22 percent, while funding from loans increased from 68 percent to 76 percent.
- Graduate students borrow more than three times as much as they receive in grants and tax benefits.
|SOURCE: “Trends in Student Aid,” from the Trends in Higher Education Series, College Board, 2005.