Funding Woes Part 3: Peer Institutions

Basically, I think of any campuses with at least 25% neo-gothic buildings as our peer institutions...I think that's how it works... 

Basically, I think of any campuses with at least 25% neo-gothic buildings as our peer institutions...I think that's how it works... 

Been thinking a lot recently about the funding situation for grad students at Notre Dame. Because the petition we sent around explicitly said that we weren't questioning or arguing against the general strategy being pursued here, and because our main concern has always been that the changes don't negatively affect current grad students (either because of their content, or the timeline for their implementation), my focus in researching these issues hasn't really included in depth examinations of what our peer institutions are doing with regard to grad student funding, nor have I been digging very deep into the big-picture motivations for proposing a new structure for humanities PhD programs. Recently, I've begun to think that this might have been an oversight. My meeting with Dean McGreevy and Associate Dean Meserve convinced me that the College's desire to implement this new structure is intimately tied up with these big-picture considerations. Because of this, I figured I'd need to get a bit of a grasp on those big-picture considerations in order to understand why -- from their point of view -- the changes (and their quick implementation) will actually be a good thing, even for current PhD students. So I did some digging.

Purdue's Recent Grad Funding Restructure 

A fountain that I assume is on the campus of Purdue... 

A fountain that I assume is on the campus of Purdue... 

Purdue was the first case I came across. True, Notre Dame probably doesn't consider Purdue a "peer institution," but in many ways our situations are analogous. Purdue has a large endowment, and is pursuing a new graduate student funding structure in the interest of becoming more competitive as an institution, and giving their recruits a better deal in their first couple of years, so that they can get out quickly and hopefully get an academic job or move on to other sectors.

From what I could gather, Purdue has long had a pretty poor graduate stipend (somewhere around $14,000, but that may have varied by department). One reason for the new funding structure, was to increase this by at least $1,000 for all of the affected departments, in order to make Purdue more competitive in PhD recruiting. ($1k may not sound like much, but it sounds like the plan is to keep increasing the stipend amount over time until they are closer to $20,000.) It sounds like this change was met with enthusiasm from many departments. On the other hand, certain departments (like English) were told that their overall budget would be significantly decreased (by roughly $200,000). It seems like the rationale here was something like this: English at Purdue was bringing in massive cohorts (around 150 students), but a decreased need for grad student teachers (Purdue, like ND, is trying to get tenured faculty to teach more of the required classes), and a pressure from the administration to be more selective in admissions, may have made it seem reasonable that the English department could reduce its budget without much burden at the individual level.

Interestingly, reducing time-to-completion was not an explicit aim in restructuring graduate funding.

  • "Reingold said in an interview that the initiative wasn’t necessarily aimed at reducing time to degree, which varies across the college. But he said that could be a happy byproduct of encouraging more graduate students to spend a bit less time on teaching -- especially those who take on more than the standard half-time appointment to make more money. The initiative also asks departments to set aside money for research-specific assistantships, of which there are relatively few across the college. "

This is the biggest difference, I think, between Purdue's new structure and Notre Dame's -- it seems that ours is being driven primarily by a concern to reduce time-to-completion. Competitiveness of candidates and prestige of programs is a secondary concern, and something that the College thinks will follow from reducing time-to-completion. This is something many have questioned: where's the data to back up the claim that quicker completion rates lead to more (and better) jobs? I think this is a good question, but one that may be, ultimately, beside the point. Notre Dame is thinking on a larger scale: overall, the institution will produce better job candidates, and have better placement records, if we can successfully implement these changes. I'm not sure that data about recently placements will definitively answer the question of whether or not that will be the case. For one thing, the data set is just too small. For another, though, PhD programs are increasingly moving toward shorter timelines, so part of this might be a predictive judgment on the part of the College: in the next 10 years, it will be the case that quicker completions will lead, in general, to more competitive candidates and more (and better) jobs. 

Stanford and CUNY 

 Stanford and CUNY have also recently implemented these kinds of changes, though in different ways and for different reasons. I'll let you read the articles I've linked to and draw you own conclusions, but here are a couple things that stick out to me:

  • Both Stanford and CUNY have implemented these changes by means of incentives at the departmental and individual level. Instead of telling grad students: you're being cut off after X number of years, these institutions are encouraging departments to restructure, rewarding them with cash when they do so successfully, and doing the same sort of thing with grad students (by offering them competitive grants and such). I'm not sure, but it may be that the reason why Notre Dame is pursuing a "more aggressive" implementation strategy here, is because -- as the Dean put it to me in our meeting -- they "want to inspire a little anxiety." They want grad students to put a little hustle in their step -- they want this program to make an impact quickly. Perhaps this is because they think it'll be better for current PhD students, or perhaps they're calculating at the departmental or University level -- I don't know -- but I can at least appreciate this reasoning. It seems like cutting time to completion could be a very long and drawn out process if only incentives were used. Using "threats" as it were, will certainly move things along a bit more quickly... 
  • In all three cases -- Standford, CUNY, and ND --  it was explicitly mentioned that the changes were being made for the good of the students, in light of increased market pressures (among other things). This is something I'm coming more and more to appreciate. Average time to completion in the humanities has long been insanely long -- around 10 years at some institutions, around 7 or 8 for ND philosophy until very recently -- maybe it's time for grad students to realize that they may be forgoing better career opportunities by spending so much time in grad school. On the other hand, of course, there's the fact that one-size-fits-all plans will inevitably exclude certain considerations (programs or disciplines that have good reasons why time-to-completion are, on average, longer than 5 years), but -- at least in my own case -- I've always wanted to make a go of an academic career for five, six, maybe seven years. If I haven't landed by then, it may well be time for me to consider something in the private sector (something that comes with its own benefits, as well as drawbacks).

Alright -- I'll let you read the articles yourselves and come to your own conclusions. 

Big, big picture stuff 

In looking for some real data on all this, I came across this website, which I found really helpful in terms of trying to understand some of the big-picture motivations for the College in this case. Again, I'll let you look it over and draw your own conclusions, but there's really some interesting data and commentary there.

Enough for now. Let me know what you think of all this in the comments if you feel like it. And please: let me know if you have concrete concerns regarding Notre Dame's transitions, or data to back up some of the things that many of us have been expressing lately -- about more teaching leading to better job market experience, the correlation between placement and time-to-completion, etc. I haven't gotten any really solid data on this stuff and will really need some if we are able to continue communications with the College in any capacity.