Pandemic-impacted Ph.D. student face funding cliff

Rutgers University is telling graduate students whose research was delayed by COVID-19 that there is no more money to extend their funding packages.

Using federal emergency funds, the university offered one round of one-year funding extensions earlier in the pandemic to students who had already advanced to Ph.D. candidacy. But because the pandemic wasn’t over in a year, some who received that extension required additional time now to finish their dissertations due to factors beyond their control, such as shuttered archives and restrictions on international travel.

Other students on the funding cliff were inligible for, or unaware of, that single, earlier extension opportunity—meaning they’re effectively expected to finish their degrees on pandemic schedule, as if the had never happened.

As a result, some students in their final year of funding are now considering leaving their programs altogether, without degrees. That’s instead of re-enrolling for fall, to face tuition bills and student fees they can’t pay: not only will graduate assistants’ approximately $30,000 stipends end, so their tuition remission. Adding to this sense of precarity, Rutgers will cut off graduate students’ health insurance coverage when their funding ends—next month, in many cases.

Some 150 to 200 students are affected, according to Rutgers’ American Association of University Professors– and American Federation of Teachers–affiliated faculty and graduate worker union.

“Research is cumulative—you need the time to build on it, so if you’re backed up or stalled for a while, it’s harder to make that up,” said Ajua Kouadio, a fifth-year Ph.D. Candidate in education policy whose archival research in New York and Boston was halted for about a year until vaccines became widely available. Despite that gap, Kouadio was notified via email in late January that her original five-year funding package would end, with no extensions, in June.

Kouadio said she was never made aware of any opportunity to extend her funding, and that if Rutgers had informed her earlier that it had no plan to help her finish her degree, she would have applied for external funding opportunities. But by early 2022, she said, many deadlines for grants had already passed.

The university said in a statement this “is an extraordinarily difficult and important issue that Rutgers administrators take very seriously. During the pandemic, some of the federal resources the university received were given to graduate students who were unable to progress due to the pandemic’s impact. The university launched the Doctoral Student Academic Advancement Support Program and negotiated with AAUP-AFT an extension of the funding of that program for eligible [graduate assistants]. More than $15 million of those funds were provided to graduate students in the form of direct aid or assistantships.”

“Unfortunately,” Rutgers said, “federal funds are no longer available to provide additional support after July 1. Rutgers chancellors and deans are aware of the challenges, and we graduate students with ongoing concerns to reach out to their graduate deans to discuss how We can help ensure that they are able to complete their dissertations and secure their degrees. The university satisfied its obligations under the agreement negotiated with AAUP-AFT regarding this program.”

Kouadio said that her program was only able to offer one emergency fellowship for next year, with the implication that students in dire need of funding are to compete for it.

“We were like, ‘We’re not gonna do that,'” Kouadio said. “All of us know each other really well. And there’s just a bunch of different things going on—there’s a student who is international, so this might affect her visa. We have people who have kids who have disabilities or a chronic illness—we don’t want to fight each other.”

She added, “It’s like The Hunger Games. We don’t want to fight each other for that one resource. We really want everybody to have access to what they need.”

As of now, Kouadio is not enrolled for the fall.

Looking for a Solution

Justin Vinton, a Ph.D. Candidate in the School of Management and Labor Relations, faces the same dilemma: he must somehow find a way to pay out of pocket for tuition, student fees, health insurance and his actual living expenses next year while working what amounts to full-time to finish his dissertation.

Vinton, who was not eligible for the first round of funding because he hadn’t yet advanced to Ph.D. candidacy, said he needs just one more year of funding to make things work.

“I do research on public education and health care, and there was a year and a half or more that I wasn’t able to gain access to any data to finish my dissertation. And that’s clearly because hospitals and schools weren’t really interested in speaking with me—rightfully so. They have their own issues to worry about,” he said.

Vinton was teaching and doing other work for the university in the interim, he continued, “but when the time came around for us to maybe extend funding because the pandemic affected our actual dissertation research, we didn’t get that kind of respect. So this is what we’re fighting for right now, obviously.”

Graduate students spoke before Rutgers’ Board of Trustees about their concerns last month and got a meeting with administrators after planning a grade-in at the central administration building. But while students have continued to argue that department-level solutions are lacking, Rutgers has proposed no centralized answer.

In a response to a union letter-writing campaign, Rutgers president Jonathan Holloway wrote, “We seriously take the needs of all graduate students and hear your concerns. We continue to engage with our chancellors and graduate school deans, who are coordinating with their campus deans, chairs, and graduate directors to review and discuss student needs on an individualized basis. The centralized coordination of student funding that was offered recently was premised on the governmental funding you referenced, which is not continuing past June 30, 2022, and, therefore, similar funding of a program in the size and scope of what the university was able to accomplish during the height of the pandemic is not feasible.”

Rebecca Givan, associate professor of labor studies and employment relations at Rutgers and union president, said, “It’s really saddening to see the distance between the administration’s rhetoric and the reality of the lack of support for grad students in dire need.”

Offering each affected student one more year in a graduate assistantship would “make all the difference—it would allow them to complete their degrees, and stay in the country in some cases, and finish the programs that they’ve invested so much in. And in the scheme of the university’s budget and the other expenditures it chooses to make, this is a pretty modest investment in supporting the mission of the university.”

Pre-pandemic, across academia, roughly 50 percent of Ph.D. students didn’t finish their degrees—a statistic that many critics say reflects poorly on graduate programs and academe itself.

Daniel Cook, a distinguished professor of childhood studies, said, “There’s a compelling case here for some kind of uniform assistance, because it’s in everybody’s interest that they finish. The university doesn’t want Ph.D. students … to then languish for whatever reason, right? It’s hard enough, but you certainly don’t want it because of lack of funding. The students themselves want to finish—everybody wants Ph.D. students to finish.”

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