March 30, 2007

Graduate students decry aid package

Nearly two months after the University announced a new $50 million aid package for incoming Ph.D. students in the social sciences and humanities, graduate students currently on campus are complaining that the plan was made without their input and ignores their financial needs.

The new aid package, announced February 7, is intended to ease the financial burden on future Ph.D. students, thereby reducing the time needed to complete doctoral studies. For students entering the University this fall, a typical package will include tuition, health insurance, a $19,000 annual stipend for living expenses, and two grants of $3,000 for summer research.

Although the package includes $1.5 million to cover health insurance for humanities and social sciences graduate students now in their first through fifth years of study, current students have complained that the decision does not adequately address their financial needs.

Emily Swafford, a first-year history graduate student, said she faces a roughly $40,000 annual tuition for the first four years of study, $4,000 annual tuition after the fourth year, and the full cost of health insurance.

“If you don’t receive a scholarship or a fellowship, you have to go into debt to pay tuition, which usually adds to your undergraduate debt,” she said, adding that the cost of health insurance, in particular, creates additional stress when students need to be focusing on research.

The cost of pursuing a Ph.D. varies among departments and students, said Kelly Pollock, graduate affairs administrator for the history department. A first-year history student without aid, for instance, would expect to pay the $11,640 quarterly tuition in his first year. Most history students, however, receive full tuition in aid from their second through fourth years, Pollock said.

In addition to their disappointment with the aid package, current graduate students complain about a perceived lack of student input in the decision-making process.

“This was just dropped on us,” Swafford said about the decision.

Pollock said the administration’s method of informing the graduate student community may have added to “the breakdown in communication.” She referred to the administration’s use of the same e-mail letter to notify both the University at large and graduate students affected by the decision. “The type of communication they received was more geared toward the press or toward the faculty,” she said.

Graduate students pressed U of C President Robert Zimmer directly on the issue at a heated open forum held a day after the announcement.

Anne Harrington, the graduate student liaison to the Board of Trustees and a Ph.D. student in political science, told Zimmer that the “overall decision is admirable,” but she echoed the sentiments of graduate students in the audience by pointing to a lack of student input in the steps leading up to the decision.

Responding to graduate student concerns, Zimmer said, “It’s not all that we’re going to need to do in these areas.”

David Greene, the University’s vice president for strategic initiatives, said the administration recognizes student concerns and is in the early stages of planning additional benefits for current students. “We are trying to work on some things to improve the situation for current graduate students,” he said, adding that recent town hall meetings with students and faculty have aimed to improve communication between the administration and students. “The idea is to have a lot of student input on everything that’s done.”�