FOGS Report Highlights Graduate Student Cost Issues
The cost of supporting a Research Assistant (RA) on a grant or contract at MIT is higher than for many of its peer competitors, according to the recently released Committee on the Funding of Graduate Students at MIT (FOGS) report. Another key finding suggests that while MIT is somewhat unique among its peers in lacking some type of reduced tuition policy for advanced graduate students, the establishment of an Institute-wide reduced tuition (“All-But-Dissertation” or ABD) rate is not financially feasible due to the tuition revenue that would be foregone. However, the committee recommends that MIT explore the possibility of reduced tuition policies for those Departments who rely more on internal funds for support. Furthermore, the committee recommends that MIT consider reducing the non-resident tuition rate, consulting with those Schools or departments most affected by the policy. (The entire final committee report and a list of committee members can be found at: web.mit.edu/provost/reports/FOGS.pdf.)
The Increasing Cost of an RA to Research Grants
It is important to continually compare the cost of supporting an RA on a research grant at MIT with the cost at our peer universities, because this is a key factor in calibrating the Institute's ability to compete for research funds. Part of the reason MIT stands out from its peers is that MIT has a larger number of Research Assistants. (Click here for a chart comparing MIT with eight of its peer schools.)
A recent history of the cost of an RA charged to a research grant at MIT indicates that this cost has increased by 45% from FY00 to FY06, an increase that is likely much greater than the increase of the average grant.
The tuition paid by research grants, currently at the rate of 55%, is a major source of income to MIT. At current levels of RA appointments, every 5% change in the academic year tuition subsidy causes a $4M variance in the tuition revenue that MIT receives from grants. It is clear that varying the tuition subsidy is one way for MIT to directly influence the number of RAs our grants can afford to support and therefore influence the size of the graduate population. However, as the comparative RA costs indicate, MIT's cost is currently close to the most expensive among top research universities (click here for a comparison chart), and therefore any further reduction in the subsidy would threaten to price MIT out of the market.
Regulating the Size of the Graduate Population
While variation in departmental support profiles certainly exists within Schools themselves, it is clear that there is a continuum of support profiles across MIT that ranges from support structures based heavily on external funding of RAs to those which are much more dependent on internal MIT funds for graduate support (see "M.I.T. Numbers" MIT Faculty Newsletter, Vol. XVIII, No. 5). In the School of Engineering and the School of Science, in which the greatest numbers of graduate students reside, the majority of graduate support is provided in the form of research assistantships (RAs) supported by sponsored grants and contracts. By contrast, in the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (SHASS), Architecture and Planning (with the exception of the Media Lab), and the Sloan School of Management, the majority of graduate support is provided by internal MIT funds in the form of fellowships and teaching assistantships (TAs). Furthermore, the data show that the School of Architecture and Planning and SHASS have considerably higher proportions of students receiving no support from MIT than the other Schools. (A third distinct culture involves Master's degree programs, addressed briefly in the report.)
The number of graduate students has risen in recent years, with the clearest growth in Engineering. Increases in the graduate (and postdoctoral) population correlate highly with increases in overall research volume at MIT, yet the number of faculty have remained level. The committee believes that the number of RAs should generally be allowed to increase (or decrease) with the availability of research funds, in order to let "market forces" decide which areas of research ought to be supporting more (or fewer) students. Areas of MIT that depend most heavily on internal support for graduate students (primarily within Architecture & Planning, SHASS, and Sloan) are willing to limit enrollments over time (and have essentially been doing so) in order to secure a predictable graduate funding base and enroll a critical mass of PhD students.
Providing a Reasonable Standard of Living
for our Graduate Students
Because the cost of living in the Boston area is one of the highest in the nation, it is critical for MIT to monitor these costs on a regular basis and adjust its recommended stipend rates accordingly. While we need to support our graduate students with levels of income that are competitive with our peer institutions (click here for comparative stipend rates), we need to be acutely aware of the particular financial challenges faced by students living in the Boston area and make sure that our stipend rates provide our students with the ability to meet reasonable living standards.
Reduced Tuition Rates and Non-resident Status
With the exception of Cornell and Princeton, MIT is apparently unique among its peer competitors in lacking a reduced tuition policy (commonly known as “All-But-Dissertation” or ABD status), once students reach a certain stage of progress or time in the program. One of the barriers to having such a policy at MIT has been its potential to erode the income stream that the Institute realizes from RA tuition charged to grants. In addition, some believe that an ABD policy may have a counterproductive impact for some students on the time taken to complete a degree, if it were to become financially easier to remain enrolled in the latter stages of the dissertation.
The committee evaluated the fiscal impact of an ABD policy and results indicate that an across-the-board tuition reduction for advanced graduate students would not be financially realistic.
Therefore, the committee recommends that MIT explore the possibility of negotiating reduced tuition policies that are tailored to the areas of the Institute that have limited sources of graduate support (especially for later-year students) and could benefit the most from an ABD tuition strategy, but would have limited impact on the overall MIT budget.
For example, the committee recommends exploring the possibility of dissertation writers in selected areas of MIT registering for a minimum number of credit units, targeted at a reduced tuition rate. If such options are adopted, MIT should consider limiting them to a specific number of terms per student, and design policies that do not act as disincentives for students to complete their degrees. Thesis proposal acceptance is a possible requirement that could be an incentive for receiving the reduced tuition rate. Alternatively, a special dissertation year fellowship could be established for qualified candidates who have reached the dissertation writing stage who would like to devote full-time to writing. A dissertation fellowship for a limited amount of time might ameliorate the issue of increased time to degree due to teaching responsibilities that can impede progress in the humanities and social science fields. The School of Architecture & Planning and SHASS have larger proportions of students who take eight or more years to complete their degrees.
Closely related to the ABD question is the Non-Resident tuition policy. A significant number of students choose non-resident status because their departments can no longer afford to support them. But these students must remain registered at MIT to maintain student status, but may not receive other financial support through MIT, including loans and teaching assistantships. Thus the non-resident status sometimes serves as a surrogate ABD status. In addition, if a student receives an outside fellowship for dissertation support, they must pay the non-resident tuition and are left with very limited income.
The numbers of students claiming non-resident status has not significantly increased in recent years (see report for detailed data). The average number of times students’ claim non-resident status over the last three years is about 200, with revenue realized by MIT from all non-resident students averaging about $500,000 per year. It seems to the committee that this income is small relative to the financial hardship it seems to impose on these students. The committee recommends that MIT consider reducing the non-resident tuition rate. For example, if the non-resident tuition rate were reduced from the current 15% of the normal tuition rate to 5%,this would result in a loss in annual income to MIT of about $310,000 per year. Furthermore, any possible policy changes both with a reduced tuition rate and non-resident status should be negotiated with the individual Schools or departments affected by the change.
Maintaining MIT’s Status as a Premier Research Institution
While MIT-based fellowship support for first-year PhD students has been the normal mode of support for several years in the Schools of Management, Architecture & Planning, and SHASS, there is an expressed, increasing need in Science and Engineering to make fellowship support available to their doctoral graduate students – for the first year in particular. Within its fundraising efforts, MIT should assert the importance of graduate student support, especially fellowships, and explore possible incentives to departments designed to enhance these efforts.This message should emphasize the importance of our graduate students to the core educational and research missions of MIT, and the critical need to continue to attract the very best graduate students to MIT, regardless of field. MIT's strength as an educational institution derives in large part from the great diversity of its academic and research programs, and this diversity is reflected in the different financial needs of our graduate programs. A strong fundraising effort focused on graduate support will be vital to MIT’s continued strength.
Prepartion of this article included contributions by Doug Pfeiffer and Mandy Smith. Charts used were prepared by members of the Office of the Provost/Institutional Research.