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Graduate school refining details of change in definition of student status

The Graduate School is currently taking steps to make permanent an interim solution to a mandated change in the way the University registers its graduate students, Associate Dean of the Graduate School James Henkel told the Graduate Student Senate at a meeting December 1.

The shift to credit-based determination of enrollment status to meet federal requirements for graduate student aid eligibility was put in place on an interim basis July 1.

"We are now in the process of making it more or less permanent," said Henkel. "We're not going to be able to go back to the good old days." He described the University's efforts to minimize the impact on individual students, faculty, and departments at the same time as maintaining compliance as "a tightrope act."

At issue is the definition of enrollment status for graduate students who have finished their coursework and are working only on their doctoral dissertation or master's thesis.

To satisfy the federal requirements, two additional credit-bearing research courses were added in the summer, GRAD 395 and 495, for which tuition is charged.

The change affects all graduate students receiving need-based aid, those who have any outstanding student loan, and international students on an F-1 visa.

To avoid hardship for current students, during the 1997-98 academic year and possibly for up to three years, the tuition for these courses has been waived, Henkel said.

But, he added, other changes in the University's policies for graduate education are also needed. Items under consideration include:

  • changing the credit requirement for full-time graduate assistants from nine credits to five credits;

  • changing the credit requirements for full-time ABD students to six credits of 495 and three credits for half-time;

  • introducing a research credit requirement for the doctorate and for those master's degrees that include a thesis;

  • and reducing the minimum course requirement, to account for the increased credit requirements for research.

The change also has provided the opportunity for a broader reexamination of certain aspects of graduate education, Henkel said.

"Compliance was the driving force for this effort," he said, "but as we got into it, we realized there were some other things we needed to correct."

Those other issues include more accurately accounting for the time faculty devote to mentoring graduate students to outside agencies who may see classroom contact hours as the only measure of faculty time and effort; bringing the coursework credit requirement for the Ph.D. degree into line with other research universities, many of which have far fewer required courses; giving credit for research efforts; and placing value on the services graduate students continue to receive, even after completing their coursework.

Henkel explained that the University has previously charged tuition only for formal course credits, not for the independent research phase of graduate studies; yet during that time students may benefit from resources including the library, archives, laboratories, computer facilities, and one-on-one interaction with faculty.

Henkel added that charging tuition for research credits may also - for a small number of students - reduce the time it takes to complete a graduate degree.

Several students expressed concern about the financial burden of paying tuition for the added research credits.

Henkel said that the University may seek to admit fewer graduate students in the future but try to fund them more fully.

Robert Smith, vice provost for research and graduate education and dean of the Graduate School, who also attended the meeting, said the University has "a very very fine full-time assistantship package - about $14,000 a year with health benefits. If departments use those, it puts us in a very competitive arrangement." Half assistantships are not so competitive, however, he added.

Henkel encouraged graduate students to bring any concerns about the effects of the change in definition of enrollment status to the attention of the Graduate School.

Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu