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Grad Students Handicapped in Search for Funding

By Jonathan Richmond
Advisory Board

This column is the second of two discussing funding of graduate student tuition.

Graduate student research assistant tuition is paid out of an "employee benefits" pool, traditionally used to pay for health insurance and the like. Over $12,000 in tuition costs is not covered by sponsor "benefits" payments for RAs. This money is taken from funds allotted for non-student employee benefits. By these costs across the Institute, the direct cost of RAs is reduced.

More disturbing, however, is that while research assistants have their tuition heavily subsidized in this way, those without assistantships -- who are in far greater need of tuition assistance than RAs -- get no similar subsidy.

Master's degree RAs in the School of Engineering receive $26,845 in salary and tuition for a nine-month academic year, while doctoral candidate RAs get $27,880. RAs in the School of Science receive similar payments. These payments exceed the market value of the services they provide: MIT has said that if the subsidies supporting these payments were to vanish, postdocs would become cheaper to hire than MIT graduate students.

In the Schools of Architecture and Planning and Humanities and Social Sciences, there is little research money. Stipends are typically much lower than in engineering or science, covering only partial tuition or none at all. Many students in these schools, along with students in other schools who choose a project for which there is no research support, are left without assistantships at all, and must fend for themselves.

This turns out to be a virtually impossible battle, and MIT's system of research funding stacks the cards against those who must do so. Worst of all, they receive no tuition subsidy, such as that enjoyed by RAs.

Graduate students, unlike their undergraduate counterparts, have virtually no access to centrally-allocated scholarship money. This discrepancy sets MIT apart from peer graduate schools. At the University of California at Berkeley, for example, RA stipends are tied to the market value of their services. All out-of-state graduate students -- whether assistants or not -- compete for centrally-funded out-of-state tuition waivers. Both Harvard and Princeton Universities provide need-based scholarship support for graduate students without assistantships.

Graduate students who are ineligible or have exhausted federally guaranteed loans are left with only restrictive MIT-funded loans. Such loans may cover last-minute gaps near graduation. But during the opening phases of degree programs, graduate students must prove to MIT's financial aid office that they can cover most of their costs from other sources, or they are refused MIT loans altogether and forced to give up their studies. Foreign graduate students get no loans during their first year of study.

Recognizing that unfunded graduate students required to pay full tuition could not complete doctorates, and discovering that many of them were breaking their registration to avoid such payments, MIT instituted "non-resident" tuition for those with approved thesis proposals. Students pay 15 percent of the full rate, but are barred from using most campus facilities, taking employment or funding through MIT, or from receiving degrees until they register once more at full tuition for at least half a term.

This is hardly a sweet deal. Doctoral candidates in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, for example, often find it financially impossible to remain full-time graduate students beyond general examination completion. They are forced away from MIT's research community, the reason they decided to come here in the first place. While away, they must pay non-resident tuition, though they receive next to nothing in return.

Many students who live locally take "non-resident" status because it is all they can afford. They cannot accept even the modest funds departments may have available. A department might, for example, be able to pay $3,000 in cash to a doctoral candidate to teach a seminar. But the student cannot take the money without paying over $7,000 more tuition for the term, effectively charging the student $4,000 for the privilege of teaching!

Ironically, this situation often forces "poor" departments to hire lecturers from outside MIT. Why should externally-funded RAs draw over two-thirds of their tuition from money paid for other employees' benefits, while other students receive no credit at all to enable them to take such assignments?

The MIT administration's blindness to this problem is epitomized in the article written by President Charles M. Vest in the January issue of The MIT Faculty Newsletter. Vest argues that by spreading RA costs "across the entire Institute, this procedure has held down the cost of research assistants to grants." If, by contrast, the full costs of research assistants were to be charged directly, "it is likely that faculty -- in order to compete successfully for research grants -- would have to employ post-doctoral scholars or research staff instead of graduate students on research grants."

Vest ignores the analogous situation MIT has thrust upon itself. Because unfunded research students enjoy no break of the type enjoyed by RAs, many fall by the wayside. Departments already employ outsiders rather than graduate students because MIT's policies make it too expensive for them to do otherwise.

Why doesn't MIT spread unfunded research students' "costs across the entire Institute" to recognize the substantial contribution to knowledge they make and to enable them to complete their studies at MIT? The answer is quite simple: there's no money to be made. MIT's attitude to far too many unfunded research students is quite simple: "If you can't pay, you're on the street."

A major restructuring of graduate student funding is urgently needed, based on honesty and fairness, not on expediency. Research sponsors should receive a complete accounting of where their payments go, with costs charged directly as far as possible.

If money is to be made available to ease the tuition burden, it should both be explicitly identified and be made equally available to all graduate students, not only those already fortunate enough to have research assistant appointments.

Most importantly, the barriers which the current system presents to those students trying to make it on their own must be dismantled. It should be recognized that "non-resident" students remaining in the Boston area cannot pay any more than they do now, and a new status created to enable them to receive relatively small amounts of Institute employment or support which may become available, without having to pay full tuition first. This would cost the Institute nothing, since these students are not paying full tuition now.

Relatively more scholarship-based support should be made available to otherwise unsupported graduate students, as is the case for undergraduates. The argument that there is inadequate funding to make progress should not be allowed to prevail against a possible reallocation of existing funds to achieve greater equity.

In the long-term, the fairest system would pay all assistants according to the market value of their services, with separate funds available for tuition scholarships, awarded competitively to any student -- assistant or not -- on a basis of merit and need. Those currently the worst off would then have a chance at getting a fair piece of the pie.