Two weeks ago, the Daily ran a front-page story lauding the potential benefits of Rackham Graduate School’s proposed continuous enrollment policy (Rackham dean pitches new enrollment policy, 02/05/2009). This would require all graduate students to enroll and pay tuition for their entire program of study even if they are researching or writing their dissertation outside Ann Arbor, activities that currently qualify as tuition-free “detached study”.

As noted in the resulting editorial (Rackham’s mistake, 02/11/2009), this will increase enrollment by almost 30 percent while leaving funding levels unchanged. Students currently paying candidacy tuition will pay at a lower rate, while those currently on tuition-free detached study will pay approximately $6,000 per year to maintain access to University resources. The money freed up by lower rates will go toward additional tuition fellowships to be distributed by departments. The books, we are told, will balance out.

So how could a proposal that is revenue-neutral for the University possibly be bad? Don’t graduate students not pay their own tuition anyway, so what are they complaining about?

Rackham’s publicity materials emphasize how continuous enrollment will give students full and uninterrupted access to University resources. We question whether students conducting field interviews in Central Asia or writing a dissertation while living elsewhere with a working spouse will benefit from access to the University gyms and University Health Services. Students outside Ann Arbor simply do not use the same amount of University resources.

Rackham seems to believe that once all graduate students are “properly enrolled,” relationships with faculty mentors will improve drastically because students will be able to say, “We’re paying for your time!” But good mentoring relationships are built on trust and reciprocity, not monetary exchange.

Rackham is undertaking initiatives to improve faculty mentoring at the University, and its efforts are to be applauded. But continuous enrollment is far from the final bolt to fix a shaky wheel.

As well as the dubious value to students of a continuous enrollment requirement, there are potential unintended consequences. The Daily’s editorial could not have put the main problem better: “The Rackham executive board is trying to streamline graduate programs that demand flexibility.” Research takes unexpected turns and personal lives continue during prolonged study. Sometimes, the single no-questions-asked semester off under the proposal just isn’t enough to sort these things out, and paying an extortionate fee to re-enroll or re-apply only makes it harder to return and complete.

Any barrier to cutting-edge research damages graduate education, the University’s reputation and, ultimately, the quality of undergraduate education as the best and brightest potential students seek opportunities elsewhere. Tackling a profound question and creating new knowledge by conducting field research is already daunting without having to obtain a fellowship to cover tuition during an absence. Even if, as Rackham Graduate School Dean Janet Weiss says, there will be plenty of fellowships to go around, and even if we take on faith her word that only students who bear the entire burden of paying for their educations might end up paying more (Student groups criticize plan for a continuous enrollment requirement, 02/11/2009), this proposal creates a perverse incentive for departments to value quick completion over cutting-edge research and student body diversity. Excellence, and not churning out carbon-copy Ph.D.s, is the point of a major research institution.

So if the revenue effect is neutral, why even have such a policy if graduate students will be financially unaffected and there are potentially grave consequences? We agree that graduate education at the University is not perfect. Many of our colleagues do not complete their degrees. But how many of these could be “rescued” by continuous enrollment versus how many will be scared off from returning by the administration? Why is Rackham only now surveying students after the proposal has been passed by its executive board on which student representatives have no vote? Rackham assures us that the details will be worked out in a “smooth implementation,” but for those affected, that is intensely worrying.

In response to a letter containing specific questions about the lack of evidence in support of such a policy, Rackham administrators sent back a laundry list of initiatives underway to improve graduate education at the University. Then, in response to the actual questions, they said, “We believe that the continuous enrollment policy is an important companion to these activities and will align the provision of University services and resources with program expectations for graduate students’ work in Ph.D. programs.”

The University teaches us to examine arguments and evidence with a critical mind and not to accept things on the faith or belief of others — yet this is exactly what Rackham wishes us to do on this policy.

For further information, or to get involved in the student response to this proposal, please contact cewgforchange@umich.edu.

This viewpoint was written by the Continuous Enrollment Working Group.

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