Pay changes set for grad students

by Tom Lopez

Starting this summer, all University departments will see a change in the way they pay their research and teaching assistants’ tuition benefits.
Persistent deficit in the graduate tuition benefits pool has prompted the University to change its graduate tuition remission program. Despite some early qualms, the new system seems to be satisfactory to both students and administrators.
“There were concerns with the initial proposal, but the graduate school worked to make sure the proposal met everyone’s needs,” said Wendy Grebner, vice president of communications for the Council of Graduate Students. “We’re actually very happy with the system. We felt it was a good compromise.”
Under the current system, departments pay a percentage of their graduate assistants’ salaries into a pool that funds all graduate assistant tuition.
The new system is a direct charge system, in which each department reimburses its own graduate assistants’ tuition costs, rather than drawing funds from a pool.
The new system will go into effect July 1.
George Green, an associate dean of the graduate school, drafted the proposal with input from the Council of Graduate Students and faculty members. “I’ve been writing up what a bunch of us have been discussing,” he said. “I’ve shepherded the proposal through the graduate school.”
Although the new system seems to be agreeable to all involved, Green said the proposal is not yet set in stone. “The details are still being worked out, but the policy is pretty well defined,” he said.
Green said parts of the policy might go into effect for the first summer session.
Grebner said initial concerns with the new system centered around departments that would lose money because of the change. Currently, some departments don’t pay their graduate assistants as much as others, and therefore benefit from a pool system.
Some were concerned that the new direct charge system might hurt those departments that don’t pay as much. As a result, those departments might not be able to hire as many graduate assistants.
However, both Grebner and Green said such pitfalls have been taken into consideration. “Central administration will shift the allocations in the budget to adjust for the impact of the change,” Green said. “As much as we can expect, departments will be left financially neutral.”
Another concern was that, because each department will have to pay tuition costs for its students directly, they might not hire as many first- and second-year graduate students because their tuition costs are higher. The proposal does not address that issue, Green said he does not think it will pose a real problem.
“That’s a bit of a concern, but I think most departments realize that if they want advanced-degree graduates, they’re going to have to hire first- and second-year graduates” he said.
Grebner said no system they examined was flawless, and that the direct charge system was the best idea proposed. “Clearly the system that we were under was not working because it was in deficit,” she said. “There was a need for some sort of change.”
Green said the deficit in the current system began to mount when the Internal Revenue Service informed the University about five years ago that the budget system it was using at the time was illegal.
In that system, a small percentage of the faculty’s income went into the pool, so the costs were spread out. However, the IRS said that legally only those benefitting from the pool had to pay into it. The result, Green said, was a financial shortfall as the benefits pool was diminished.
“We haven’t been able to run the (current) system we adopted in a way that balanced,” he said. “I think the system we’re designing is much more self-balancing.”
Other reasons for the deficit include underestimation of tuition increases, as well as the amount of guesswork that was inherent in the system. Green said the University would often underestimate the number of credits students were taking and overestimate the number of graduate students that would be enrolling.
“We’re trying to design a system that is not as reliant on guesswork, so its not as vulnerable to forecast error,” he said.