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    Lesson Seven – Financial Support
    Lesson Seven – Financial Support

    One of the greatest challenges facing graduate students throughout their educational process is how to pay for their schooling. Full-time students are most likely directing the majority of their concentration to their studies, although it may be necessary to secure part-time employment to help fund their education. Most part-time students face the even greater life challenge of having to balance full- or near full-time jobs with school, families, and other personal commitments. In either case, financial support is usually a critical issue for students to be able to successfully balance their personal and academic lives.


    Lack of adequate funding is one of the top reasons graduate students give for not completing their degree (Ehrenberg, Jakubson, Groen, So, & Price, 2005). Time is money, and the longer the student stays in graduate school, the more it will cost. However, work and family commitments, as well as other distractions, all influence the length of time a student spends pursuing an academic degree.


    Students with the shortest time-to-degree generally receive some type of funding assistance in the form of fellowships, traineeships, or research assistantships (Barnhill & Stanzione, 2004). Those with teaching assistantships and other forms of funding, such as loans, take longer to complete their degrees. The longer a student takes to finish the degree, the less stable his or her funding becomes, and therefore the likelihood that the student will attain the degree lessens.


    Several recommendations for managing the financial support of graduate students have proven successful:


    Faculty entrusted with determining financial awards must be sensitive to the reality of funding graduate education from the student’s perspective. In numerous instances many decades have passed since faculty were themselves struggling graduate students, and the survival needs facing students no longer supported by their parents can be relatively invisible to faculty. An open line of communication between faculty and students about financial problems students may be experiencing is important in understanding the pressures they may be experiencing. Often peer mentors and other advanced students can be a source of information about how to manage on a student stipend.


    The graduate faculty should be aware of sources of information regarding alternative funding available for their students. Keeping up-to-date on financial aid options, federally subsidized and unsubsidized loans, university scholarships, and websites that point to fellowships sponsored by outside groups can make it possible for faculty to direct students to additional sources of income; this information can make the difference between a student’s dropping out and continuing graduate studies. In addition, the graduate program administrators should learn about the university's financial aid deadlines so that they can give their students maximum options for funding support.

    Advocating for the financial support of graduate students should be an ongoing agenda of faculty charged with administering graduate education. Such support can go beyond grant or state-funded assistantships or traditional university awards. The development office should be sensitized to possibilities of establishing donor-supported scholarships and fellowships for graduate students. The financial aid office should be alert to applying for and making available federal funds available only to graduate students, such as Perkins Loans. And faculty can recruit sponsors of paid internships in the community and work-study opportunities that relate to the students’ research.


    Advocating for the improvement of university systems that may cater primarily to undergraduate students will lead to changes in procedures that can make graduate students’ experience more welcoming. In some universities many of the student administrative policies and procedures were developed with undergraduates in mind. The policies and procedures may not be fully applicable to graduate students. Graduate school staff, for example, can work with the financial aid office to assure that awards are available in a timely manner, since these graduate students are typically not financially supported by their families. Further, some graduate students may be working professionals and arrive in the evening to find the bursar’s or financial aid offices closed. When a student accounts receivable office automatically sends invoices to the student’s permanent mailing address (presumably for parents to pay), that bill may end up in China or Brazil at a home where English is not read, or in Muncie or Birmingham where the residents at that address have no financial responsibility for the student. Encourage university offices, if they do not do this already, to examine their services from the perspective of an adult graduate student.


    It is simply honest and humane to be up-front about the graduate program’s policy regarding financial support for the education of its students. Faculty typically use grants, fellowships, scholarships, and assistantships to recruit the best and brightest students, and they usually award them on a discretionary basis without consideration of the student’s financial need and without a clear declaration of how long this support is available. If the policy is to support doctoral students through the entire degree process, regardless of the time it takes, that should be stated (and widely publicized). If support is guaranteed for a certain number of years but will be terminated if the student takes longer to complete the degree, this too should be communicated. If support is contingent on the good performance of the student, the student should be informed at the beginning of his/her study. If financial awards are determined annually, based on number of students, pool of money, and performance, the student needs this information to plan for contingencies. This will allow a student to plan and determine whether they may need to secure a loan, a job, or pursue a program of study elsewhere.


    Whatever the funding policy of the graduate program, continuing students must be informed of the status of their future financial support as early in the current academic year as possible. If a student is informed in July or August that the assistantship will not be available for the new academic year, he/she may well have missed the deadline for submitting the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and for arranging for alternative funding sources through the financial aid office or elsewhere. Even if such alternative support is forthcoming, it may not arrive until well after the first tuition, rent, health insurance, and utility bills are due. This may be the death knell in the student’s plan to complete the degree.


    Recognize that teaching assistantship responsibilities— unlike research assistantships or fellowships—can be a diversion from the student’s research and can lengthen the time that is required to complete the dissertation (U.S. Department of Education, 2000). Teaching assistantships can be excellent for developing knowledge and skills for teaching, and are therefore important to those seeking a career as a professor; nevertheless, dedicated instruction takes time. In some cases, doctoral students find the responsibilities of teaching overwhelming, and have been known to begin to neglect their own studies (Smallwood, 2004).


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