UNCW grad students facing financial squeeze
September 2, 2011By Teresa McLamb
The University of North Carolina at Wilmington’s strategic plan includes a goal of significantly increasing the number of graduate students and offerings by 2020.
But a report prepared by current UNCW grad students shows achieving that objective could prove difficult.
The reason? UNCW may be handicapped in recruiting the graduate students because rising tuition, fees and living costs are eating away at the level of financial assistance the school is able to offer these students.
In a survey conducted last year, the primary finding of concern was that nearly 40 percent of the $10,000 to $11,000 per-nine-month stipend paid to students working as graduate assistants, teaching assistants and research assistants goes directly back to the university in tuition and fees.
Since 2001, the cost of tuition as a percentage of the average stipend paid to students has increased from 17 percent to 37 percent. On top of that, basic living expenses for the students have increased 16.9 percent since 2005.
The bottom line, the student survey shows, is that the school’s goal of doubling graduate student enrollment over the next 10 years is unlikely to happen unless financial assistance is increased.
And given that school budgets are being slashed – not increased – the prospect of greater financial support for students is poor. UNCW had to cut its budget for the current fiscal year by $16.5 million.
UNCW currently has 1,333 students in 43 graduate-level programs, including two doctoral and nine certificate programs. That enrollment is projected to double over the next decade.
The Division of Student Affairs and the Graduate Student Association devised a survey of 37 questions in three areas of concern: finances, campus resources, and support. The survey was sent to 407 graduate students enrolled at UNCW during the fall 2010 semester, and 374 students completed it. Sixty-five percent are full-time students.
Survey respondents acknowledged that resources available to them on campus are broad and readily available, but some admitted to not taking advantage of them. Others simply weren’t aware of everything available.
Through a detailed accounting of living expenses, students presented a picture of their financial situation as strained, with basic expenses having risen 16.9 percent ($2,100) since 2005. These include rent, utilities, food, transportation, health care and insurance. Adding tuition and fees to the mix brings the increase to almost 20 percent, or $3,563, since the 2005-06 academic year. Total expenses for the past academic year were approximately $18,000.
Fifty-three percent of all students – both full- and part-time – have an off-campus job. Among full-time students 37 percent work off campus and 20 percent of full-time students who work on campus as graduate assistants, teaching assistants and research assistants, also hold down an off-campus job.
Sixty-three percent of the students who responded said they would prefer on-campus jobs if they were available, however, the survey made it plain that some students are unaware of where and how to find campus jobs.
Incoming Graduate Student Association President Carolyn Priester is a PhD candidate who also attended UNCW for her master’s degree. She said the cost of graduate school 10 years ago when she received her master’s was far more affordable than it is today.
“The main issue that arose with the survey is that graduate students are taking out more loans than before. The basic cost of living has been going up and tuition is going up as well,” she said.
“Stipends have gone up, but not as much as the basic expenses. As a result of that, students are paying more of a percentage of their stipend back to the school as tuition and fees. This puts UNCW at a less competitive level with other schools.”
In fact, the study looked at school costs-versus-financial support at 14 other schools considered “peer institutions” to UNCW and found that eight of them offer greater financial support for graduate students.
Shortly after the survey results were tabulated, Priester and the previous GSA President, Mike Polito, met with Graduate School Dean Robert Roer and UNCW Provost Cathy Barlow.
“We had a very good conversation,” Priester said. “They were happy to see the results of the survey. Now they have a basis for what needs to be improved in order to improve our program. Dean Roer has been really helpful.”
At Barlow’s suggestion, the students later met with all of the school’s deans to discuss the survey findings and their concerns.
Priester described that meeting: “They were glad to see us. Before that, no one really knew what the main issues were for graduate students. Of course, this is coinciding with the budget cuts. Now we know what needs to be done, but how can we do it in times like this?”
Roer agreed the school and the students are in a tough situation, pointing out budget cuts at UNCW over the past three years total almost 36 percent.
“We’re well aware that our ability to provide support in many ways has not kept pace with the cost of living and increases in tuition and fees and other expenses students have seen,” Roer said.
“[We’re] extremely sympathetic because it has an impact on our ability to recruit the top students. We have made attempts to address this, but at this point it’s a problem that’s very difficult to surmount. We did increase stipend levels just over a year ago by close to $1,000 per nine-month teaching assistantship, in some cases more.”
He explained that the RA and GA stipends generally parallel the amount set for TA stipends. His office controls the TA stipends, while the RA and GA stipends are controlled by external sources. GAs are salaried positions funded by various academic and non-academic sources. RAs are funded by research grants and may also include pay for summer work.
Department of Biology and Marine Biology graduate student Justin M. Eichinger suggested the university look at reducing fees in light of the budget crunch. For example, he said the school should eliminate the charge for campus parking, which is $315 per year.
“I understand that the university is undergoing major budget cuts, but in order to help grad students financially, we either have to be given more money or have less taken away,” he said in an e-mail.
“I believe that charging students less for academic fees, parking, dining on campus, tuition, etc… is a more realistic solution than increasing student salaries, at least for now.”
However, he added that UNCW would eventually have to increase stipends to stay competitive.
Roer said he was pleased to see the survey results showed that, with the exception of the stipend and parking, students are fairly satisfied with the level of services the university provides.
“I should also say that while the stipends are regrettably low, the situation is not too terribly different at most public universities across the state and country,” he said.
“The issue is larger than UNCW or just North Carolina. There’s been a shift in the public attitude toward the value of higher education, particularly at the graduate level. There’s a shift from recognizing a higher education as a public benefit to it being a private benefit, so support given to state institutions has proportionately been decreasing.”
Roer said university officials have had discussions about easing the expense to graduate students through changes in fees. Student activity fees have been redirected from the Student Government Association to the Graduate Student Association, which is able to “provide travel assistance and other direct benefit to graduate students.” A look at recreation center fees revealed that graduate students use the center as much as undergraduates. Athletic fees are also being examined, he said.
One plus for students that was not obvious from the survey is that candidates in the university’s two PhD programs have their tuition and fees covered by the school and no graduate student who is receiving a stipend is required to pay out-of-state tuition.
Roer explained that the school receives instructional funds from the state based on enrollment. That money can be used toward full-time, tenure-track professors, part-time faculty instructors or assistants, he said.
The state also gives the university some money for out-of-state tuition remissions. A student who is employed by the university in a research, teaching or graduate position is eligible for the remission, which covers the difference they would pay between out-of-state tuition and in-state tuition.
“We have a limited number at UNCW,” Roer said, “approximately 70 to distribute among graduate students. UNC Chapel Hill has well over 1,000. We do ensure that priority is given PhD students and many of our masters students receive it.”
Through private monies and return on endowment funds, the school distributes varying amounts for in-state tuition scholarships to the different departments to use as they see fit.
“For the programs that have doctoral programs, we give them proportionately more so we can assure they can cover tuition cost for doctoral students,” Roer said.
He lamented that there is not enough money to cover all tuition costs, but “it is an attempt to help where we can.”
Roer said the next step is to continue the dialogue with students. Because state enrollment dollars support TA stipends, the amount of money is limited to the increase in enrollment.
“Enrollment growth gives positions and funds,” Roer said. “We determine what we can do with those funds. They come in to hire faculty. We can hire full-time tenure-track, part-time, or new graduate student assistantships. That’s an academic decision based on what we figure our most acute needs are. The graduate students have provided us with a lot of data to figure into that discussion.”
He said the school’s deans meet regularly and the needs identified in the survey are on the agenda for their next meeting. Roer also meets regularly with the Graduate Student Association and said he will report to them on all the discussions held at the dean level.
“We recognize this as an acute problem,” he said. “I’d like to say we can fix the problem right away. It’s a constant tension between competing needs and limited resources.”