Stanford affirms commitment to funding current graduate students

Patricia J. Gumport, vice provost for graduate education, and Claude Steele, dean of the Graduate School of Education, made presentations yesterday to the Faculty Senate.

L.A. Cicero Patricia Gumport, vice provost for graduate education and professor of education, speaking at the Faculty Senate meeting on Thursday.

Patricia Gumport, vice provost for graduate education, speaking at the Faculty Senate meeting on Thursday.

Patricia J. Gumport, vice provost for graduate education, announced Thursday that Stanford will increase its central support to pay 40 percent of the tuition for graduate students on research assistantships beginning in the 2014 fiscal year, up from 35 percent for the past several years.

Gumport made the announcement at yesterday's Faculty Senate meeting, speaking on behalf of Provost John Etchemendy, who could not attend.

Currently, students funded by research assistantships receive a salary, plus tuition. Sixty-five percent of the tuition is paid by the source of funding paying the salary – typically a principal investigator's research grant. The remaining 35 percent is paid by the university's general funds.

The increase in general funds support to 40 percent will reduce the pressure on principal investigators who are managing their research grants in a context of great uncertainty, given the across-the-board cuts mandated by sequestration.

Students will likely not see the impact of the increased central subsidy. Their tuition funding remains at the same level. What is changing is the contribution by central university funds to supplement funding from research grants and contracts.

"In the next year, we estimate this to be an additional $2.5 million dollars going out to faculty in the schools," Gumport said. "It will certainly be very welcome. I'm sorry the provost is not here to be able to announce it himself."

The funds are available for the schools of Earth Sciences, Education, Engineering, Humanities and Sciences, and Law. The funds are not available to the Graduate School of Business or the School of Medicine, which have different financial arrangements with the university.

The increased central subsidy will also extend to tuition coverage for students on nationally competitive portable fellowships, such as the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.

Gumport said the financial impact is significant for a principal investigator who supports research assistants: The 8 to 10 units of tuition that Stanford covers for a research assistant is about $37,000. This year, general funds contribute about $13,000 toward that tuition. Next year, general funds will cover almost $15,000.

Gumport said that "across the university, everyone is in a wait-and-see mode with regard to how federal agencies will be affected and how they will respond" to the across-the-board cuts, which went into effect March 1. The uncertainty is both short and long term.

"So just to review: They could reduce budgets in our research grants that we already have," she said. "They could reduce the number of new awards. They could reduce the amounts on new awards – the same goes for fellowships. They also potentially could ask universities to pay a larger portion of different things, like tuition. And that would create shortfalls for us that we need to be prepared for."

Gumport said she was especially concerned about the impact on doctoral students and postdoctoral scholars, who will be deeply affected by federal funding cutbacks. She said more than 40 percent of Stanford's doctoral students are supported on federal funding, along with one in two postdoctoral scholars.

"Given all the anxiety that's been expressed, especially by students that I've spoken with, I want to reassure them, and the faculty who fund them, that our top priority is to meet our funding commitment to our current students. I've spoken with PhD students in departments where there hasn't been much conversation about this. I think it would be helpful to give them this assurance."

Gumport said Stanford has "an abundance of reserves at several levels" – held by faculty, departments, school deans and central funds – on which the university can draw to "manage our vulnerability."

She said federal research dollars – grants, contracts, fellowships – were one of three major sources of funding for graduate students at Stanford last year.

In 2012, external grants and contracts accounted for $84.7 million in graduate student funding, with the lion's share – $71.3 million – coming from federal agencies, including the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy and NASA, she said.

That same year, Stanford contributed $132 million to graduate student funding from designated and restricted funds, and $92.5 million from general funds.

All three sources accounted for $309.2 million in graduate student funding in 2012.

Federal agencies are facing budget cuts as a result of the Budget Control Act of 2011, which was designed to reduce discretionary spending by $2.2 trillion over the next 10 years through $1 trillion in spending caps and $1.2 trillion in across-the-board spending reductions.

Gumport said that nearly half of the 2,000 postdoctoral scholars working on campus in 2012 were funded by federal grants and fellowships.

Last year, most postdoctoral scholars at Stanford – 63 percent – worked on research projects in the School of Medicine. The rest worked in the School of Humanities and Sciences (17 percent); the School of Engineering (11 percent); independent laboratories (5 percent); the School of Earth Sciences (3 percent) and the Graduate School of Education (1 percent).

Graduate student enrollment trends

Gumport presented a slide showing the changing picture of graduate student enrollment from 1985 to 2012.

Using nearly a dozen slides, Gumport discussed enrollment in 2012, focusing on women in engineering and science programs, international students and underrepresented minority students from the United States.

Among the highlights of her presentation:

  • Women accounted for 24.5 percent of the total number of doctoral students in the School of Engineering in 2012.
  • Within that population, the department with the largest percentage of women was civil and environmental engineering (38 percent), followed by chemical engineering at 33 percent.
  • Women accounted for 30 percent of the total number of natural sciences doctoral students in the School of Humanities and Sciences in 2012.
  • Within that population, biology had the greatest percentage of women (51 percent), followed by chemistry at 33 percent.
  • International graduate students, who hailed from 100 countries, accounted for 33 percent of graduate students in 2012.
  • More than half of international students (58 percent) came from Asia, followed by Europe (17 percent), the Americas (15 percent), the Middle East and North Africa (7 percent), Africa (2 percent) and the Pacific Basin (1 percent).

Gumport said white students accounted for 34.1 percent of the graduate student population at Stanford in 2012, followed by international students (33.2 percent), Asian Americans (13.4 percent), unknown (9.9 percent), Hispanics (5.5 percent), African Americans (3 percent) and Native Americans (0.8 percent).

She presented another chart showing the total number of underrepresented minority doctoral students – Hispanics, African Americans and Native Americans – studying natural sciences in six departments within the School of Humanities and Sciences, and in eight departments within the School of Engineering:

  • In Engineering, underrepresented minorities accounted for 4. 1 percent of doctoral students.
  • The department within the School of Engineering with the largest percentage of those students was aeronautics and astronautics at 8.8 percent, followed closely by chemical engineering (7.3 percent) and mechanical engineering (6.0 percent).
  • In the natural sciences departments within Humanities and Sciences, underrepresented minorities accounted for 4.8 percent of doctoral students.
  • The department with the largest percentage of underrepresented minorities was biology (10.9 percent), with the other natural sciences departments trailing much behind.

Gumport said there are concerted efforts to diversify Stanford's graduate enrollment in all seven schools by dedicated school deans, faculty, staff – including diversity officers – and current students, all of whom are eager to welcome new students into the university community.

"A number of recruitment initiatives are very effective, especially campus preview days and summer undergraduate research experiences," Gumport said. "Stanford is all the more attractive when prospective students see the robust array of resources to promote academic success and skills beyond the disciplinary specialization gained in graduate study."

Graduate School of Education update

L.A. CiceroClaude Steele, dean of the Graduate School of Education, presents a report at the Faculty Senate meeting on Thursday.

Claude Steele, dean of the Graduate School of Education, presents a report at the Faculty Senate meeting on Thursday.

In his first appearance before the Faculty Senate as dean of the Graduate School of Education (GSE), Claude Steele said the research-oriented school can play a significant role in addressing the educational problems of the United States by making education "smarter in all of its aspects."

Steele said the case of medicine was an instructive analogy.

"In the face of its greatest challenges, cancer, for example, real and lasting progress has come primarily from high-quality research and science, and from evidence-based training of doctors, nurses and medical staff," he said.

"The Graduate School of Education makes the same assumption about education – that the best way to make lasting progress in our schools is to pursue continuous improvement through strategies based in high-quality research, science and scholarship, and through evidence-based training of leaders and teachers. In a word, the aim of the GSE is to make education 'smart.'"

In the past, the United States has had wave after wave of school reform, and while the nation has learned from those reforms, they haven't worked in very powerful ways, Steele said.

"Our hope here is that this kind of science-based, research-based approach can be thought of as an alternative strategy for having a significant impact," he said.

Steele said several factors have converged to make education research stronger, less impressionistic, more rigorous and more penetrating: the emergence of big data; learning analytics and innovative uses of technology; new statistical techniques; and an expansion in neuroscience that promises insights into how the brain enables responses to and retains learning.

Video games provide research insights

Video games provide a huge opportunity to make education "smart," he said, citing the work of education Professor Dan Schwartz, who developed a suite of video games that enabled him to measure the tendency toward critical thinking in middle school students.

"Using this particular game, Dan looks at whether a student stops to think first when trying to solve a problem or jumps in and messes around in search of a problem," Steele said. "The object of the game is to get a performing cartoon otter to sing. What you have to do is mix colors in a certain way to produce a white light. As soon as you shine that white light on the otter, he sings."

The student had two options: Consult a light catalog to determine how to mix colors to get a white light, or jump into the game and try to create a white light.

"Her choice, it turns out, says a lot about the way she is likely to solve problems in other situations," Steele said.

"Dan's little game about the otter might seem kind of silly at first glance, but it provides a simple way to measure a student's predisposition to use critical thinking in problem solving and to use it early in problem solving," he said.

"It answers an important question: Does the tendency to engage first in critical thinking help in solving immediate problems – like the otter problem? And is it a tendency that predicts success in other areas, for example, math performance in school? And the answer to both those questions is a resounding 'yes.'"

Income-based achievement gap widens

Steele also cited the 2012 research of education Professor Sean Reardon, who found that the gap in test scores between the higher-income and low-income children has grown by about 40 percent and is now nearly twice as large as the black-white achievement gap.

"This, of course, challenges the basic American assumption that our schools are serving as the primary route to equal opportunity for everyone," Steele said. "Moreover, this income gap is present when children begin their schooling on the first day of kindergarten and it doesn't change a great deal over the course of school. Sean's research has some pretty clear policy implications."

Steele said the study identified how income had become one of the most powerful predictors of academic achievement and recast the urgency of focusing on schools that serve low-income populations.

"It also points toward a solution that could go a long way to addressing the problem," he said. "It encourages us to focus on early childhood education to close the achievement gap. Sean's findings played a significant role in the Obama administration's recent proposal to stress universal preschool. And it wouldn't have come to light without Sean's ingenious assembly of this large data set going back 60 years, which allowed him to track the changes in these gaps."

Steele said the Graduate School of Education has collaborated with the San Francisco Unified School District since 2010. During that time, the school district's test scores have improved.

He said the GSE hopes to expand those partnerships to include school districts in Oakland and San Jose.

Steele also said that the school is exploring the idea of creating the Stanford Institute for Educational Innovation, which would enable Stanford to advance "smart education" by strengthening the interaction among research, evidence-based training and educational practice.

The minutes of the March 7 meeting, including the question-and-answer session that followed the presentations, will be available next week on the Faculty Senate website.