“Reduced” Tuition for Self-Pay Students in 6th and 7th Year of Study

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The university leadership and General Committee have approved a “reduced” tuition option for self-pay PhD and DMA students in their 6th or 7th year of registration available starting Fall ’14.  The reduced tuition rate will be set at $5,750 per semester ($11,500 per year).  Students on reduced tuition will also be responsible for the student activity fee ($81) and the student health insurance premium (~$2122).  The reduced tuition must be paid by the student—departments and external agencies may not pay the reduced tuition rate for the student. The reduced tuition is available only to self-pay students who have received and exhausted their financial support package and will be paying their own tuition to maintain registration status.

The Problem:

Although this is being framed as positive by the Graduate School, there are a number of substantial issues with the changes that will negatively impact graduate students. The GPSA leadership and the graduate student members of the General Committee of the Graduate School (who do not get a vote) were strongly and vocally opposed to these changes when they were consulted in the Fall 2013. However, the policy was implemented despite the graduate student opposition. Here are the main problems with this new policy change:

  1. The “reduced” tuition rate is nowhere close to a reasonable amount for a student to pay out of pocket ($11,500/year, plus health insurance ($2122) and other fees), not even considering living expenses. Almost all of our peer institutions have far lower rates for self-pay students (see table below). Most have a drastically reduced rate for ALL students after their 4th years, rather than a reduced rate only for self-pay students.
  2. Implicit in the change is that the Graduate School will crack down more on people taking Leave of Absences or going In Absentia to complete their degree when their funding runs out, which is a major strategy that many students currently use to complete their studies.
  3. The Graduate School anticipates and expects that late-stage students will thus need to take out student loans to complete their PhD’s, but decided that the change will not have a negative impact on enrollment numbers, etc. This reflects very little concern for the financial burden this will place on a number of students.
  4. STEM faculty PIs may be incentivized to appoint their advanced students as “self-pay” hourly to avoid paying the full tuition charge on their research grants, which may have negative impacts for the student status of international students.

A little bit of background

In the Spring of 2013, the GPSA passed Resolution 17 which identified the very real problem of what happens to PhD students who run out of funding before they have completed their dissertation. Although this problem affects students in all disciplines, the problem is most acute in the humanities, where the average time to completion is 6.8 years. The typical funding guarantee in most fields five years, so students whose funding has run out and who aren’t supported by external fellowships have typically had three options:

  1. Pay the full tuition rate and living expenses out-of pocket.
  2. Go “In Absentia” – Must prove that you live 100 miles from campus, making access to campus resources, such as the libraries and regular meetings with one’s advisor, impractical.
  3. Take a “Leave of Absence” – Relinquish access to all campus resources and forfeit “student status”, which is particularly problematic for international students on a student visa.

Resolution 17 called for a reduced tuition rate for late-stage PhD students, similar to what many of our peer institutions have implemented. A survey of Ivy+ schools conducted by the Graduate School in June 2013 showed that all Ivy+ schools except Brown offer some sort of reduced tuition rate for advanced students.

School Annual Reduced Rate Comments
Yale $850 Years 4-8.  May be TA or RA while on reduced rate.
MIT $2,160/year By petition.  Reduced rate of $1080/semester for first three semesters, then $3240/semester. Students eligible after year 2.  May receive fellowship or stipend for 1st three terms but stipend must be less than tuition.
Chicago $3,136/year Years 6 and beyond.  “Out-of-pocket” rate to student.
Columbia $3,564/year Years 4 through 9.  Rate rises to $19,344/year if student is TA or RA.
Penn $3,596/year Years 6-10.
Princeton $4,940/year
Harvard $10,112/year Reduced tuition years 3-4.  Facilities fee ($2,574/year) years 5 and beyond.  Students eligible for TA or RA.
Stanford $10,728/year Eligible for TA or RA.
Berkeley $11,220/year Waiver of non-resident tuition for three years after A Exam.
Brown $44,608/year Reduced tuition eliminated as of July 1, 2011.

Important note: Brown is the only school without a current reduced tuition rate for late stage students. However, there was a major crisis in funding availability for late stage students at Brown this year. Basically, graduate students at Brown need to apply for funding after their 5th year. But this year, there was funding available for less than half of the students applying for 6th year funding, which was a major issue for a number of students, and particularly international students. More details here: https://www.change.org/petitions/christina-h-paxson-stand-up-for-brown-graduate-students

In response to Resolution 17, the university leadership and General Committee approved this reduced tuition option for self-pay PhD and DMA students in good academic standing who are in their 6th or 7th year of registration, despite substantial opposition from the limited number of graduate students who were consulted.

At best, this change does little to fix the issues raised by Resolution 17. At worst, this policy puts an undue financial burden on students who are already struggling to pay their expenses, complete their degree and find a job. This also illustrates the challenges that graduate students face when discussing issues of tuition and stipend rates with the administration.

Why we need a union:

Consultation with students who participate in shared governance does not necessarily mean that we are a meaningful part of the conversation, as policies that are not in the interest of students can be implemented despite vocal student opposition. Having a union that is recognized by the university would require them to sit down and negotiate with us on a contract. It’s another reason why graduate students at Cornell need to work for a stronger voice in controlling the conditions of our work and labor.