February 13, 2007

University boosts graduate student aid

In response to complaints about inadequate support for graduate students in the Humanities and Social Sciences divisions, the University announced last Wednesday a new allocation of $50 million over the course of the next six years to increase aid to graduate students.

The aid package aims to expedite the Ph.D. process by enabling graduate students to focus more on scholarship without worrying about health insurance, summer grants, and living expenses.

“I could manage on the new terms without any extra money,” said fifth-year philosophy student Tom Lockhart, who has had to do some extra work to get by. “I believe they are correct in thinking that the new offers will reduce time to completion.”

Beginning next fall, incoming Humanities and Social Sciences graduate students will receive aid packages that will last five years and typically include tuition, health insurance, a $19,000 stipend, and two summers with $3,000 for research.

“The problem is a long-standing one, identified as a priority early in President [Robert] Zimmer’s tenure,” said Provost Thomas Rosenbaum. “We have worked intensively with the deans, chairs, and faculty to craft this program over the last three or four months.”

“What we want to do is to take money off the table and let potential students make their decisions about Chicago [based on its] academic and intellectual merits,” Rosenbaum said.

The new initiative will also extend health insurance to graduate students who matriculated after 2003. Those who entered earlier and did not receive health insurance, however, will not automatically receive coverage.

This aspect of the initiative has drawn criticism from some graduate students.

“Not extending health care to the entire graduate population was simply about reducing costs so that the University could put a competitive program in place for incoming students,” said fifth-year graduate student Lauren Pilgrim.

Health insurance packages vary at graduate schools comparable to the U of C. Brown University and Stanford University offer insurance to many financially supported students, but not to all of them. Yale University gives basic health care to all graduate students.

“The stakes are high because more freedom to control the shape of your graduate career can mean more publishable papers and better chances on the job market,” Pilgrim said. “Current students who are struggling financially may even take longer and then find themselves on the job market with students who benefited from the support for their first five years.”

David Greene, vice president for Strategic Initiatives, called the new support “among the most generous in the nation.” He said the funding gap between current and incoming students is necessary in order to provide “time for the University to raise funds for this initiative and to gradually integrate the new costs into the University budget.”

Still, some current students complain that they will not benefit from the program.

“Because the issue is so fresh, a great deal of what you’ll get when you speak to grads about this will be their sense of hurt, insult, and indignation that they feel at not only being deprived, but now, at being bypassed [by] the University’s burst of generosity,” said second-year sociology graduate student Anjanette Chan Tack.

Students without American citizenship or residency are especially restricted when it comes to finding funding outside of what the University provides, said Yazan Doughan, a first-year anthropology graduate student.

If application deadlines had not already passed, “I would have seriously considered dropping out and reapplying” in order to take advantage of the new aid package, Doughan said.

Greene said the University has made the allocation of $2 million for the extension of health insurance next year its highest priority.

“Our complaints will not go away,” Chan Tack said. “They perdure in the persistence of the concrete reality of financial insecurity that many current graduate students experience every day.”