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Monday, March 26, 2012

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Coming Decline in UC Graduate Education

By Joel Norris, UCSD

If UC is to continue to be a system of research universities, it is essential to maintain robust graduate programs. Sadly, the Regents and UCOP are making choices that undermine Ph.D. education, often with little financial benefit to UC. One particularly detrimental factor is the practice of raising graduate tuition in tandem with undergraduate tuition.

Very few Ph.D. students pay tuition out of their own resources. Some have their tuition paid out of departmental block grants, and more have their tuition remitted because they work as teaching assistants. In these cases, increased graduate tuition simply means UC is picking its own pocket. All is not equal, though, because the total number of students who can be supported by institutional funding necessarily declines as per student costs rise.

High tuition also hurts accomplished students who obtain prestigious outside fellowships. Some UC departments (though not my own) have refused to allow students to receive fellowships because they did not include sufficient funding to cover the high UC tuition.

Extramural funding pays tuition for the large number of Ph.D. students who work as research assistants. Since this money comes from outside the university, it might appear that UC gains revenue by raising tuition. This is not the case in the short term, however, because principal investigators cannot go back to funding agencies to top up grants when UC raises tuition midcycle. Neither is it the case in the long term, because flat budgets at federal agencies make it increasingly difficult for UC faculty to gain additional extramural funding, let alone maintain present levels. As per student costs rise, the number of research assistants must go down.

While it is possible that PIs could cut postdoctoral positions rather than graduate research assistantships, that is less likely to happen. Unlike graduate students, postdoctoral researchers are already trained and work full time. The relative lack of productivity of graduate students would not be a problem if they were a smaller financial burden, but UC tuition rates have already risen so high that postdocs are now cheaper than students.

Another factor favoring postdocs over graduate students is the recent tendency for some federal agencies to provide only two years of funding at a time rather than the standard three years. Since it takes about six years to complete a science Ph.D., three rather than two grants are needed to sustain a student from beginning to end. With proposal success rates declining to 20% or less, this means more grant-writing to get a graduate student through from start to finish.

Postdocs can help put together a new grant proposal, whereas graduate students have not yet gained the experience and knowledge to do so. Moreover, postdocs only expect to be around for two years and will have already gotten some publications out, so it is not a disaster if no continuing funding is obtained. Being forced to moving onto a new project is a much bigger disruption for a second or third year graduate student.

As UC raises graduate tuition to make up for declining state funding, this in turn creates the incentive to reduce the number of fellowship-funded students, teaching assistants, and research assistants. Individual faculty may benefit from supporting fewer graduate students, but UC will collectively suffer if the number of Ph.D. students declines. A research university cannot be sustained with undergraduates and professional students alone, and UC may soon find itself in a downward spiral.


Anonymous said...

This is not bad news. There are too many PhDs and not enough post doc slots for them. I say quit letting in so many grad students and start funding more PostDocs. Really.

Ralph Spoilsport said...

There aren't too many well-trained, UC PhDs. The notion that we would further constrain places in graduate programs assumes that it is always possible to predict (before they are admitted) which students will demonstrate the most research creativity; it isn't.

PhD students play a critical role in research and discovery, and also as teaching assistants, increasing the contact that undergraduate students have with the research experience.

Post-docs are indeed more productive and more cost-effective, but UC needs both. Thank you, Joel, for highlighting the adverse consequences of high graduate tuition. As you note, this tuition is generally not paid by students, and represents a significant burden for their funding source.

Anonymous said...

Anyone who seriously believes we don't have too many well trained, deserving PHDs is in serious denial. This is really a separate issue-- to say that UC grad education is under real threat does not mean we can't also admit we and higher ed in general produce too many PhDs, and rely on their labor to keep faculty teaching loads lower. Programs that still admit more phd students than they can fully fund (ie without student loans) seem to me to be doing students a disservice, even if well intentioned.

Anonymous said...

Chancellor Birgeneau denies admission for instate students for foreign student tuition.

Is UC a public university?

Andrea Bertozzi (Director of Applied Mathematics at UCLA) said...

I can not speak for the entire UC system however the PhD students graduating from my program at UCLA are having no problem finding jobs they are getting their pick of jobs. Funding agencies are not going to increase awards because the UC system increases tuition for PhD students. We are typically given a target $$ amount and we have to fit what we can in that amount. Moreover if the value the agency gets per $$ is cut because of increasing grad tuition it could hurt our ability to continue to bring in grants. My previous job at a private university had tuition waivers for all the PhD students in the department.

Anonymous said...

Extreme disparities in higher education make it impossible to keep the promise of equality of opportunity for Americans. University access, affordability is farther and farther out of reach. UC Berkeley Chancellor Birgeneau, Provost Breslauer leave an indelible mark on access and affordability. Self absorbed Chancellor and arrogant Provost are outspoken for public Cal. ‘charging Californians much higher’ tuition. Number 1 ranked Harvard is now less costly. Cal. tuition is rising faster than costs at other universities. The ‘charge Californians higher’ tuition makes Cal. the most expensive public university!

Birgeneau ($450,000 salary) Breslauer ($306,000 salary) like to blame the politicians, since they stopped giving them every dollar expected. The ‘charge Californians more’ tuition skyrocketed fees by an average 14% per year from 2006 to 2011-12 academic years. If Birgeneau Breslauer had allowed fees to rise at the same rate of inflation over the past 10 years they would still be in reach of most middle income students. Disparities in higher education defeat the promise of equality of opportunity. An unacceptable legacy for students, parents, politicians!

Additional funding should sunset. The economic downturn is devastating California. Simply asking Californians for more money to fund inept Cal. leadership, old expensive higher education models and support burdensome salaries, bonuses, and pensions is not the answer.

UC Berkeley is to maximize access to the widest number of Californians at a reasonable cost: mission of diversity and equality of opportunity. Birgeneau’s Breslauer’s ‘charge Californians higher’ tuition denies middle income Californians the transformative value of Cal’s higher education.

Opinions? UC Board of Regents marsha.kelman@ucop.edu Calif. State Senators, Assembly members.

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