Faculty Senate discusses graduate student affordability
Senators heard presentations on graduate student affordability and accreditation during their meeting on Thursday.
The Faculty Senate discussed the pressing issue of graduate student affordability following presentations from the Office of the Vice Provost for Graduate Education (VPGE) and the Graduate Student Council on Thursday.
While Stanford has steadily increased financial support over the past decade, recent survey data details ways in which graduate student affordability remains a significant concern, one that the university needs to strategically address, said Stacey Bent, vice provost for graduate education and postdoctoral affairs.
Graduate student representatives said the university is currently unaffordable for most graduate students and doesn’t provide a competitive cost-of-living-adjusted compensation.
Senators also heard a presentation on the university’s ongoing accreditation process.
Graduate student affordability
Faculty, department chairs, and deans have told VPGE that the cost of supporting graduate students is becoming unsustainable, said Bent, the Jagdeep and Roshni Singh Professor in the School of Engineering.
Funding from federal agencies has not kept pace with the rising costs associated with adequately supporting graduate students and postdocs, she continued. To help address the issue, the Office of the Vice Provost and Dean of Research (VPDoR) is conducting a study on the rising cost of research and the widening gap between that cost and the sponsored research funding available from federal agencies.
“We want to provide support for 100% of our graduate students, but we are especially concerned about the most vulnerable who need more of our help,” Bent said.
Stanford sets a minimum assistantship for teaching and research, and all doctoral students have tuition and health insurance paid in full. Additional benefits are provided at the discretion of a department or school, such as laptops or conference travel.
The minimum assistantship is tied to the cost of attendance (COA), which should reflect the actual costs associated with attending Stanford as a single graduate student without dependents, which is the bulk of Stanford’s graduate student population, Bent explained. Students with additional expenses, including those related to spouses and dependents, are supported by other university grant programs.
The four biggest COA categories are rent, food, personal expenses, and health insurance, Bent said. The amount allocated for rent is based on Stanford-subsidized housing, which is offered at a rate 21–33% below comparable market rent.
Over the last decade, the minimum assistantship for graduate students has increased by 53%. In 2015, the assistantship at Stanford exceeded the COA for the first time.
VPGE has worked with the provost and budget group to implement the Affordability Task Force’s three key recommendations stemming from a 2019 study: guaranteed 12 months of funding at the minimum assistantship level for at least five years for all doctoral students in good standing; a 100% subsidy of Cardinal Care; and expansion of need-based support, such as family and emergency grants.
Brian Cook, senior director for assessment and evaluation, discussed preliminary key findings regarding doctoral students from the 2022 Stanford Student Expenses Survey, which was conducted by Stanford Institutional Research and Decision Support in November.
The survey had a 45% response rate for doctoral students, the highest across degrees.
A main finding was that 74% of doctoral students experienced financial stress while at Stanford. Of this group, 24% said their financial stress impacted their academic performance, 15% said it impacted their research or dissertation work, and 11% stated that they seriously considered taking a leave of absence or stepping away from Stanford as a result.
Other key takeaways include:
- 55% declined invitations to social events due to cost
- 20% didn’t have funds to cover travel home during breaks
- 17% sent funds home to support their families
- 34% said they had forgone health care because they couldn’t afford it
- 33% worked beyond their primary teaching or research assistant position
- 18% worked because they needed funds to cover basic living expenses
Also, 23% reported that in the last 30 days, they ran short of money and tried to make their food or food money last longer, and 40% reported having “enough but not always the kinds of food we want to eat.”
Most – 75% – reported hearing of emergency grant-in-aid, but fewer than a third of respondents were aware of various resources such as the Lathrop Equipment and Laptop Lending Program, the Family Grant, and others.
Bent said VPGE is looking into why students are forgoing health care when expenses are covered, and the extent to which students are accessing the individual grant-in-aid fund. The 4% of doctoral students who say they sometimes or often don’t have enough to eat is also very concerning, she said.
“We also have a food pantry but this is either insufficient or the wrong resource for these students,” Bent said. One possible solution VPGE is exploring is the reinstatement of the Shopping Express shuttle route to increase access to affordable shopping.
Postdoc minimums are set annually by the provost following recommendations by the Provost’s Advisory Committee on Postdoctoral Affairs (PACPA). Bent noted that twice in the last decade, the provost decided to exceed the recommended minimum. “This represents yet another gap between the federal funds we rely on to support trainees and the support that Stanford believes is appropriate and necessary for postdocs,” Bent said.
In response to Affordability Task Force recommendations for postdocs, the Family Grant and the Child Care Assistance Grant were launched in 2021, and both funds have since increased, Bent said.
Two housing programs were also launched last year, and a pilot program provides transitional housing for incoming postdocs. In September, Stanford announced the purchase of Oak Creek Apartments, which includes more than 700 units prioritized for postdocs at less than the market rate. Further, there is continuation of an emergency fund grant program which provides support for unanticipated needs.
‘A set of hardships’
The “affordability crisis has dire complications and implications for our university campus,” such as threats to research and teaching excellence, prolonged time to degree, and harmed student well-being, said Lawrence Berg, doctoral candidate in chemistry and Faculty Senate liaison for the Graduate Student Council (GSC).
The trends highlighted in the Expense Survey data and peer cost-of-living comparisons will only worsen without meaningful steps from Stanford leadership, said Jason Anderson, GSC co-chair and a doctoral candidate in aeronautics and astronautics.
Financial pressures are particularly concerning for international graduate students, who must fund trips home and pay visa fees, said Yiqing Ding, doctoral candidate in mechanical engineering and Faculty Senate liaison for the GSC. Ding said he himself has not visited his home country in 18 months.
Ding also cited challenges faced by graduate students who have child care costs; have moved off campus; and who have chronic illness and often require emergency grant-in-aid, which he described as “insufficient and band-aids.”
The GSC shared several firsthand experiences of graduate students detailing the financial pressures they encounter.
“Students talk about how their rent has been increasing – subsidized on-campus housing – more than their paycheck, and food scarcity has been directly impacted by the loss of pre-pandemic transit options,” said Emily Schell, GSC co-chair and doctoral candidate in education. “And again, the student points out that all of these issues are ones that Stanford controls as both our landlord and our employer.”
For the academic year 2023-24, student minimum assistantship stipends were raised by 4.9%, which is effectively a pay cut, Schell said.
On Feb. 17, the School of Medicine increased its minimum salary for 2023-24 by 7% to $51,600. “We urge you to urge your respective schools to take similar critical steps in setting your school’s minimum salary,” Schell said. “And more importantly, faculty senators, we urge you to stand as allies to your graduate students [and] to your colleagues in their advocacy for greater affordability support, as every additional hour navigating this financial insecurity threatens Stanford’s research and educational excellence and students well-being.”
David Palumbo-Liu, the Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences and professor of comparative literature, said that today’s graduate students have had to face a series of abnormal events and hardships, including the pandemic, the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, the disappearance of tenure-track positions, depression of wages, housing costs, and more.
“It’s not about individual hardships but a set of hardships that are shared broadly across the entire graduate student population … hardships that are making their progress through education qualitatively and quantitatively different from anything any generation since the Second World War has faced in the United States,” Palumbo-Liu said.
Eric Shaqfeh, the Lester Levi Carter Professor in the School of Engineering and professor of chemical engineering and of mechanical engineering, said he is “appalled by the level of financial stress” graduate students face. Further, he said, “my grants are all but worthless in the sense that I’m paying more for each of my graduate students than any grant minimum that I am getting right now.” Shaqfeh asked if the administration recognizes that increasing the minimum assistantship is no longer a solution.
Provost Persis Drell noted that VPDoR and VPGE are actively reviewing the issue, and that the costs of doing research and related challenges will be front and center of budget group conversations.
“The rising cost of research is a very important issue particularly, I would say, for our faculty,” Drell said. “We are keenly aware of this at all levels of the university administration.”
As part of the accreditation renewal process, Stanford has submitted its institutional report to the Western Association of Schools and Colleges Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC), and is hosting an accreditation team site visit March 15–16, said Stephanie Kalfayan, vice provost for academic affairs and the university’s accreditation liaison officer to the WSCUC.
Accreditation ensures that universities and colleges meet certain standards, and being accredited allows students to be eligible to receive federal financial aid, which totaled $61 million last year.
The report focuses on two themes. The first one, Advancing Undergraduate Education, examines reforms to the undergraduate curriculum and programs such as COLLEGE. The second theme, Supporting Our Community for Success, examines emerging assessment data about community members’ experiences and how the IDEAL initiative meets community needs.
Kalfayan told senators their involvement will be “crucial” during the site visit and encouraged senators to attend open sessions that will be available to students, postdocs, staff, and faculty for informal input.
The campus community was also notified via email this week regarding a confidential email address for community members to communicate with the team about their Stanford experience, Kalfayan said.
Larry Diamond, senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and the Hoover Institution, asked if issues around quality of student life, mental health issues, and residential life are considered as part of the process.
Susie Brubaker-Cole, vice provost for student affairs, said one criterion for review is about the institutional offering of an appropriate array of services for students, which will cover those issues.
From the president
In his remarks to the senate, President Marc Tessier-Lavigne said he’s looking forward to this year’s Family Weekend, the first to be fully in person since 2020 and expected to break attendance records.
“Our students’ families always bring huge energy and huge joy to our campus, and I’m just so delighted that we have so many joining us for the event this year,” he said.
Tessier-Lavigne also addressed allegations reported last week about his research conducted while working at the biotechnology company Genentech. “I reject the allegations in the strongest terms,” he said.
He directed senators to his laboratory website for his full response as well as to a recent Genentech statement in the press earlier this week that said the company “found no documentation substantiating allegations of a Genentech investigation, scientific fraud, misconduct, or other wrongdoing in the research work leading to the 2009 Nature paper.”
Bent is also a professor of chemical engineering and of energy science and engineering, and a senior fellow at the Precourt Institute for Energy.