Correction appended: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported in the seventh paragraph that Associate Dean Peggy McCracken accepted the resolutions. It should have said she accepted the letter of support.
Though the continuous enrollment policy in Rackham Graduate School was announced last year, many students involved in negotiations surrounding the policy say they are still unclear on what the policy actually means.
The policy, which was first announced last semester, would require students in a Rackham doctorate programs to register every fall and winter term until they complete their degrees — a change that would consequently decrease tuition rates for graduate students.
From its infancy, the policy suffered from what many consider to be a poor public relations strategy, leaving faculty and students alike confused over the policy’s details and its ramifications for the educational experience in Rackham. That lack of clarity sparked some backlash from students and even prompted the formation of the “Continuous Enrollment Work Group,” an organization of University graduate students who say the proposal was not being accurately portrayed to the Rackham community.
One major effect of the new policy would be that students will be required to pay tuition each semester — something they currently don’t have to do if they decide to take time off to care for children or do special study in the field, though the new policy will accommodate some situations that would allow students not to enroll for a semester.
In the midst of all of this, the Rackham Student Government passed two resolutions over the summer requesting more information about the policy from Rackham administrators.
“Within 48 hours, somewhere around 472 students signed a letter of support for the resolutions just because they were very concerned that they hadn’t had access to this information and were excited about the opportunity,” Rackham student Marie Puccio said.
She added that Associate Dean Peggy McCracken accepted the letter of support.
The first resolution requested Rackham to follow up in writing to the Continuous Enrollment Student Advisory Committee — a group established last spring by the University in order to facilitate communication with Rackham students and the administration — regarding details of the plan and answer questions students felt had gone unanswered.
The second resolution asked Rackham officials to provide students with a written promise that students be “guaranteed a fellowship or an equivalent source of funding,” as a means of lessening the financial burden that the new policy could place on students.
Most doctorate students do not pay their own tuitions. Instead, they are paid by a third party, often the University.
Rackham Dean Janet Weiss said the policy will continue to go forward as planned. When the policy was announced last spring, Weiss set out a timeline, which she said is still in effect. According to the timeline, every school with doctorate students was scheduled to come up with a funding plan, which the 17 schools announced last week.
The next step in the process will be for the Board of Regents to get an informal briefing on the status of the plan, which is scheduled to take place during one of the board’s monthly fall meetings. In Winter 2010 officials are scheduled to announce leave of absence policies and then training will begin for staff who work with graduate students. The regents will set tuition rates for Rackham students in June 2010 at the same time they set tuition rates for the rest of the University and the policy will be implemented in the fall semester of 2010.
“None of this is actually going to happen until next September so we still have 10, 11 months to make sure everything is all aligned,” Weiss said. “But we want to do the planning as far in advanced as we can so that people know what is going on.”
Rackham student Shaun McGirr wrote in an e-mail that implementation of the policy is moving too fast without taking student input into consideration.
“Delaying implementation would be better than nothing, but it doesn’t in itself change the fact that this is a rotten policy with no solid evidence base in support of it, very little support amongst faculty and department administrators, and almost zero support amongst the students it would actually affect,” he wrote.
McGirr, who was involved in the formation of the CEWG, wrote that one concern is that because the new plan requires students to pay tuition for consecutive semesters, departments will alter their definitions of “satisfactory progress.” McGirr said that this might require students to take less time earning their degrees so that departments aren’t left footing more student tuition bills.
“Under the current system, people can take (a leave) and remain connected and remain working and this puts the onus back on the departments to define what is satisfactory progress for each student,” he said. “So we’re concerned that students who have that second kid and the department is under funding pressure, they might alter the definition of satisfactory so that the department itself doesn’t get left with the bill for your tuition”
Weiss said she believes that faculty would not alter their definitions of satisfactory progress. She said that each department receives enough money to cover their students for the amount of time that is typically needed to complete their degrees.
“The definition of satisfactory progress is very program-based and faculty-based, and that’s what constitutes progress in our field toward doing a high-quality dissertation,” Weiss said. “So, it’s extremely unlikely that the faculty would change what they expect in a student working on a dissertation because of so-called departmental tuition fellowship shortages.”
Several students have also expressed concern over the lack of communication with University administrators regarding the policy. McGirr wrote in an e-mail that the main point students are still unclear on is why the dean’s office believes the policy would be beneficial to students.
“The evidence base for implementing this is currently just ‘We believe it will be beneficial to graduate students’- when pushed repeatedly on scholarly evidence of a causal (i.e. true) connection between requiring continuous enrollment and increased degree completion,” McGirr wrote in the e-mail. “The dean has admitted that this evidence does not exist.”
Puccio and McGirr said they are worried about the future implications of the new policies — like decreased flexibility for students — and feel Weiss and other administrators have only offered vague and incomplete responses to their concerns.
“The current system, though flawed in some respects, provides a non-punitive way of achieving this flexibility,” McGirr wrote in the e-mail. “Most students we talk to don’t understand why this new policy adventure has been embarked upon, at the cost of so much effort, and stress on graduate students’ part from the poor communication by Rackham and the unexplored and unintended consequences of the policy.”
Puccio said although LSA has come up with a funding plan to circulate to students, the plan is confusing and vague.
McGirr said that while there was some two-way communication at the inception of the Continuous Enrollment Student Advisory Committee, it has become more of a “funnel” for the administration to tell students about their decisions and updates on policy movement instead of being a forum for students to voice concerns.
Weiss countered that there are many venues for students to voice their concerns.
She noted that she has met with many students and groups, like the working group, and said that she is willing to meet with any group that would like information about the policy.
“It is very much a conversation and a communication,” she said. “We have used the (Continuous Enrollment Student Advisory Committee) for a couple of other conversations as well, but the primary purpose of the committee from the beginning has been to help us understand how students can effectively communicate their questions and concerns to us and how we could effectively communicate our questions and concerns to students.”
Weiss added that though some students are still unclear on the policy, it will move forward as scheduled.
“We are trying to make things as clear as we possibly can. Obviously we haven’t succeeded with everyone yet,” she said. “But we have been trying very hard and diligently.”
Though McGirr and other graduate students and student associations have had the chance to meet with Weiss to discuss the policy, McGirr said that he left those meetings with many questions unanswered.
“Specific answers came out, which were interesting but still we left with the impression that there’s still basically no rationale for the policy and we’re not sure if it’s financially sustainable in the long run,” he said.
The graduate students involved in the negotiations are expecting to receive concrete details about the plan from administrators later this semester.
-Daily News Editor Jillian Berman contributed to this report.