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The funding crisis in graduate education

Don Howard | Thursday, October 28, 2004

Notre Dame aspires to be an elite university, rivaling Harvard, Princeton and Berkeley. Reaching that goal means achieving excellence in undergraduate education, graduate education and research. Progress in research and graduate education is a top priority in our new strategic plan. Judging by such measures as the U.S. News & World Report rankings, we’re well on the way toward elite status in undergraduate education. In graduate education and research we’ve made great strides, but still face major challenges. Some of our Ph.D. programs are among the best in the world – Philosophy, Theology, the Medieval Institute and the History and Philosophy of Science Graduate Program are there already – and others are prepared to step into the top ranks. In too many fields, however, ours are still what are termed second, third or, in a few cases, fourth quartile programs.

A necessary condition for maintaining the standing of strong programs and improving the rest is recruiting the best new graduate students, and a necessary condition for successful recruiting is offering competitive financial support. But here Notre Dame faces a crisis. As recently as six years ago, we were in a strong competitive position. This year, however, is the third straight with no growth in the value of basic stipends or special fellowships. This year, for the first time, modest support is provided for health insurance, but that covers only about one third of the total cost for those on basic graduate stipends.

How serious is the problem? It’s hard to say because the university has not made available good, timely, comparative data. But some of us have collected our own data. Here’s what I found in my field, History and Philosophy of Science. A February 2003 survey of 20 top programs with which we compete revealed that, on average, our basic nine-month stipend of $11,700 was $2,500 dollars below what our competitors offered, and virtually all our competitors covered health insurance, making the total average difference more like $3,500. This information is already over a year old, and we’ve again had no growth in funding at Notre Dame, so we’re now even further behind. To cite just one more recent example, a graduating Notre Dame philosophy major received an offer from Princeton last spring for over $20,000.

Savor the magnitude of the problem. Our stipends would have to grow by over 30% to reach the average among our competitors, and that would only put us in the middle of the pack. It won’t do to say that we can muddle through because the cost of living is low in South Bend. It’s not that low, and the cost-of-living argument is not persuasive with new recruits. In addition to the problem of recruiting new students, there is the problem of treating current graduate students with justice and fairness. $11,700 isn’t a living wage, even in South Bend. For a married graduate student with one child, a family income of $11,700 is almost $4,000 below the poverty level for 2004 as defined by the Department of Health and Human Services.

We face other pressing financial needs, including undergraduate financial aid, library funding, research infrastructure, faculty salaries, and new faculty hiring. But none of these challenges is as serious as that which we face in funding graduate education. Here we have reached the crisis point. If substantial new funding is not provided immediately, then the quality of the graduate students recruited to study at Notre Dame is guaranteed to decline. We’re already losing top-quality graduate students to schools offering more generous support. If we don’t act quickly, the damage will take many years to repair.

Some might argue that spending to recruit the best and brightest graduate students is not important, if all they do is serve as research assistants to the faculty. I can’t speak for all fields, but in the humanities this isn’t the point of graduate education. In the humanities, our mission is to train the next generation of university professors. Heretofore, especially but not only in fields like philosophy and theology, Notre Dame has distinguished itself in this respect. Notre Dame Ph.D.s are found on the faculties of the most prestigious universities in the United States and around the world. That’s one important reason why the reputation of Notre Dame looms so large in academia.

If Notre Dame is serious about its professed commitment to excellence in graduate education and research, then dramatic action is needed now. Not two years from now, but now. And we don’t need to study the problem. We know what the problem is. The question is whether Notre Dame – by which I mean the central administration, donors who have high ambitions on behalf of the university and all faculty members who have a voice in setting academic and budgetary priorities – will do what needs to be done.

Professor Don Howard teaches philosophy and is the director of the Graduate Program in History and Philosophy of Science.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.