COLA taking steps to increase graduate student funding

Esther Raizen

A recent column in the Daily Texan by Nicholas Holterman (June 19) is the latest example in the Texan of rumors and conjecture that fuel unnecessary anxiety among graduate students in the College of Liberal Arts and belittle efforts to streamline graduate programs and increase TA and AI stipends.

We invite Daily Texan readers to study the publicly available working paper on our plans for student funding and time to degree, as well as the milestone agreements compiled and published by individual departments in response to the 2011 call by the UT System to reduce time to degree.

The current plan is neither sudden nor secretive, nor does it require departments to hastily adjust degree plans, as most of them have done so already. It also does not present a challenge to the quality of our programs and training, and is anything but "one size fits all.” Rather, the plan demonstrates a clear, long-term understanding of the diverse nature of doctoral degrees and student research. Our continuing commitment to this diversity has been confirmed time and again in the course of recent conversations with department chairs, graduate advisors and coordinators, student representatives and Daily Texan reporters.

The funding piece of our plan is in response to ongoing conversations with departments on the low stipends offered to TAs and AIs, a major weakness confirmed by every external review committee that has visited our campus. In 2013-14 we increased our fellowships to a competitive level, and with our plan to ultimately limit funding to six years we are taking a major step toward increasing TA/AI stipends to cover, at minimum, the cost of attendance. This is not to save the college money, but rather to invest in increased stipends for TAs and AIs and decrease the amounts that doctoral students must borrow. Shorter time to degree and higher stipends are both critical components of any plan we put in place while pursuing these goals.

Because we are honoring all funding plans made for 2014-15, we are not in a position to increase TA/AI stipends next year. We have taken a small step by covering the difference between the centrally funded tuition reduction benefit and actual tuition for 2014-15. With no new money coming our way, however, it is impossible to increase TA/AI stipends and continue to fund individual students for more than six years. That is why we have encouraged departments to streamline degree requirements and why we provide support for dissertation writing and external grant applications, the latter critical for students who foresee the need for a seventh year of funding.  

These and other steps began in the mid-2000s with college-wide discussions on time to degree and student funding. With the economic downturn in 2008, discussions broadened to consider strategic uses of all resources that go into student training. Yearly strategic planning meetings with department leaders—a college practice for more than a decade—were our main forum for consultation. With the exception of a 2013 meeting dedicated to undergraduate education, meetings since 2007 have focused entirely or primarily on graduate student training and success. For these meetings departments were asked to provide detailed reports addressing common indicators of program strength (such as graduate student support, time to degree, placement, national rankings, selectivity in admission and faculty to student ratio), and to offer strategies for maintaining excellence in training and placement. We invite Daily Texan readers to examine the summary of our 2012 strategic planning meetings, shared with all departments and hope that students engage departments in conversations about past and present strategic plans.

The college is close to meeting its goals for time to degree. In analyzing outcomes for graduate students who first enrolled between fall 2002 and fall 2007, 748 students from those cohorts completed PhDs, with an average time to degree of 6.7 years, and a median of 6.5 years. Our goal is to stay near the 6.5-year mark. These numbers demonstrate that some programs take fewer than six years to PhD while others often take longer. Students may complete their degrees in seven or more years, but should not expect funding from the college for the full duration of their time on campus as a matter of course.  

Widespread ignorance of our gender-neutral parental accommodation policy is troubling. Our college has led the university in supporting graduate student parents. In 2012 Dean Randy Diehl announced that new parents among our graduate students would be granted an additional semester in expected time to degree, an offshoot of a Provost Office policy that stops the tenure clock for junior faculty in cases of childbirth or adoption. To date, an academic accommodation plan for graduate student parents has also been adopted by the College of Natural Sciences and the Cockrell School of Engineering.

An excellent graduate program is one that gives students every opportunity to engage in meaningful scholarship and training leading to successful career placement. It is our responsibility to work with departments to determine how to achieve that success in the context of dwindling resources. This fall we will convene a student task force on TA/AI duties that we hope will become a platform for ongoing and productive discussions between graduate students and the college.

The insistence on repeating and propagating rumor and conjecture does not serve the interests of graduate students. We encourage students to learn more about past discussions that have led to our current plan and to work with us and with their departments to determine the best strategies for future success.


Esther Raizen is the associate dean for research and graduate studies in the College of Liberal Arts.