UT graduate programs attempt to offset decreases in funding for fellowships, TAs, AIs

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While members of the Texas Legislature continue to butt heads over undergraduate graduation priorities and the role of research, graduate students are seeing shifts in their enrollment, employment and fellowship opportunities at the University.

Starting this year, the University has decentralized its graduate fellowship award decisions and will make tuition benefits for teaching assistants (TA) and assistant instructors (AI) tax-free this fall in hopes of offsetting the coming decline in tuition benefits next semester. 

Although undergraduate enrollment at UT has grown incrementally over the past decade, graduate enrollment fell 4.3 percent from its fall 2009 peak. Currently, there are 11,123 graduate students at UT, not including students at the School of Law. 

The changes in cohort sizes and fellowship awards have been part of a University push to ensure that graduate students continue to receive financial support that remains competitive with peer institutions, while also granting flexibility to individual departments to allocate resources as they see fit.

Shrinking funds, growing needs

The benefit received by TAs and AIs, the largest source of financial support for the graduate student body according to the Office of Graduate Studies, will decline back to $3,784 per student next fall, after temporarily being boosted to $4,000 during this academic year to keep pace with the 3.6 percent increase in graduate tuition. This will be the first time a decline has occurred since the inception of benefits in fall 1997.

Also for the first time, the students receiving the benefit next semester will not have to pay taxes on it. After consulting with the Internal Revenue Service, the University has discovered that the amount of funding provided to graduate students through tuition benefits is enough to qualify for tax-exempt status, said John Dalton, assistant dean of the Office of Graduate Studies. The benefit, along with in-state residency status, is part of the financial compensation awarded to TAs and AIs.

“When tuition assistance was set up, the compensation for those positions was fairly low, and the benefit was part of that compensation,” Dalton said. “Over the years we have increased the stipend we pay, and it has increased to be of acceptable compensation for a [tax-exempt] benefit.”

Necessary for teaching undergraduate seminars, the number of graduate TAs and AIs employed by the University has changed only slightly from 3,089 in spring 2009 to 3,068 in fall 2012, meaning nearly 27.6 percent of graduate students in fall 2012 worked as TAs or AIs.

Esther Raizen, associate dean for research at the College of Liberal Arts, said state funding reductions mean the amount of tuition benefit paid to TAs and AIs will not keep pace with the rising cost of graduate student tuition over time. As part of the TA or AI benefit, graduate students receive resident status and earned $4,000 a semester toward tuition this year if they worked for 20 or more hours a week. The average cost of full-time tuition this year was $5,370 a semester for residents and $10,264 for non-residents.

“The tuition benefit is a way of funding partial support,” Raizen said. “It’s not dramatic, but it’s still a difference. And we can’t reduce the number of TAs or AIs. In the absence of additional funding, reduced student cohorts are the only means by which we can increase our student support and remain competitive.”

Decentralization

Individual colleges and schools managed a little more than half of the $14 million in graduate fellowships at the University for the first time this year, a role previously overseen by the Office of Graduate Studies. Fellowship funding derives from a variety of funds and endowments and was decentralized according to the requirements of each fellowship.

According to the Office of Graduate Studies, the amount of University-funded fellowship awards for graduate students has continued to rise in recent years and reached an all-time high this school year. But these funds only account for slightly less than 5 percent of all funds used to support graduate students, said Marvin Hackert, associate dean of the Office of Graduate Studies.

A joint committee of Faculty Council and the Graduate Assembly last year also found that fellowship grants after decentralization were much more irregular in amounts granted because of communication breakdowns in individual departments.

Alan Friedman, English professor and co-chairman of the committee, said colleges were unsure how to offer fellowship funding because individual deans had less experience and could not manage over-offers or under-offers across the University the way the Office of Graduate Studies could.

“When fellowships were centralized, they could offer more money than they had, because experience taught them that the students were not always going to be accepted,” Friedman said. “Nobody took a chance of offering more than it had. And it’s tougher to do if you’re giving out at a smaller unit. When centralized, you could make up the offers in the other departments if you fell short in one area.” 

Since gaining the power to allocate its fellowships, the College of Liberal Arts has overhauled its awards to be competitive in funding with peer institutions. Beginning in fall 2013, the college will award fewer, but more valuable fellowships that provide a minimum of $20,000 per academic year, including tuition and student health insurance. 

Raizen said this was done to keep pace with the rising cost of living in Austin and paying graduate tuition at UT, which is estimated by International Student & Scholar Services to be $25,370 a year for residents, and $34,310 for non-residents. An average of $5,370 of that cost goes to tuition.

State-level woes

As University resources are focused on meeting four-year graduation rates and undergraduate priorities, graduate student budgets have been targeted for reduction, said Michael Redding, president of the Graduate Student Assembly and a Texas Student Media contract employee.

“The colleges are looking and saying, ‘We don’t want to give just a little bit of money to a lot of people,’” Redding said. “As much as it pains me to see graduate support getting cut, most graduate students would admit that they need to keep the funding that they have.”

In fall 2012, only 9.5 percent of undergraduates were non-residents, but 56.9 percent of graduate students at UT were out-of-state or international students.

“In this Legislature, the primary focus is on undergraduates,” Redding said. “That’s who their constituents are. But graduates are out-of-state and international and not voting, so the graduate experience is left out of the mix.”

State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, a member of the Senate Higher Education Committee, said in a statement to The Daily Texan that graduate student issues deserve more attention from the Legislature.

“The Legislature must stop starving universities to the point that some administrators are tempted to undermine graduate programs, or other critical higher education necessities, to preserve other resources and offerings on a campus,” Watson said. “Higher education should be treated as a vital investment, not a zero-sum game.”

As of press time, there had been more than 2,500 bills filed in the current legislative session — and only one bill with “graduate” in the title has been filed for graduate students at public universities in Texas.