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“Financial” and “stability” aren’t terms that have paired well in many sectors of late, and higher education is no exception. So when the City University of New York Graduate Center was offered stable funding for five years by the state Legislature in 2011 as part of broad reforms for CUNY and the State University of New York, accompanied by modest tuition hikes, it could have gone in a number of different directions with its newfound security. But citing a commitment to reforming graduate education, the center is overhauling the funding and structure of its doctoral programs to help students graduate faster and better-prepared for academic and nonacademic job markets alike.

“We don’t live in Humboldt’s university anymore,” said President William P. Kelly, referring to Wilhelm von Humboldt, architect of the 19th-century, highly standardized Prussian model of education that has influenced the American system. “It’s not accessible, given the human cost of time-to-degree.”

In other words, he added, it’s time to rethink the “roach motel” concept of graduate school, where “you check in and don’t check out.”

The center is recruiting the first 200 candidates who will receive new Graduate Center Fellowships to begin their studies in the fall in the humanities, social sciences and sciences (other than those in biochemistry, biology, chemistry and physics, who receive different scholarships). Candidates will be guaranteed full tuition funding and an annual $25,000 stipend for five years (that’s up 40 percent from the current stipend of $18,000). There’s also a decreased work requirement aimed at reducing time-to-degree: after starting the program as a research assistant or in a similar post, a student will teach one course per semester during his or her second, third and fourth years. Currently, graduate students teach two courses per semester.

Students will spend their fifth year in service as a Writing Across the Curriculum fellow, or in a similar assignment (the program pairs doctoral candidates with faculty to help institute more writing-intensive courses for undergraduates).

“It’s a multipronged process,” Chase Robinson, center provost and senior vice president, said of the new center initiatives, which will cost $11 million annually. “There’s no magic bullet, but these are several different fronts we need to work on.”

Robinson said it’s not expected that everyone will finish their degree in five years, and certain programs – such as those in the humanities and social sciences – could well take longer (the center’s current average time to an English degree, for example, is 9.5 years). “The important issue is making students aware from the start that although they may not finish the degree in five years, if they [don’t], that will be principally a function of life decisions and life choices.” (At the end of five years, students writing their dissertations are eligible to apply for center grants.)

Kelly called it a “carrot and stick” approach to reforming graduate education, something that’s “practically and ethically” necessary.

Doctoral program reform – and reducing time-to-degree in particular – has been a hot topic recently in higher education circles, given the bleak academic job market in many disciplines and spiraling student debt (nationwide, such debt surpassed credit card debt to reach $1 trillion for the first time ever last year). But so far, it’s mostly still a point of discussion. Besides the funding opportunity – and the center’s unique, 90-percent-Ph.D.-student profile – Robinson said culture and geography have contributed to the institution’s ability to act on reform.

“There’s something about New York,” he said. “When it comes to the social sciences and humanities, New York is an extremely attractive place, and it’s good for us to have the competition that [New York University] and Columbia [University] present.” 

Kelly said the fellowship program ultimately could have implications for the dissertation process, where “oral and [comprehensive exams] are not discrete events, but a jumping board to the dissertation.” Robinson said new fellows will be encouraged to begin research earlier in their careers.

Fellows also will hone “transdisciplinary” skills through the center’s existing Advanced Research Collaborative and related seminars, and gain increased professional-based opportunities outside of the center in New York to prepare them for possible careers outside academe – something Robinson said has to be stressed more in discussions about reform (Kelly said 30 percent of 2011 center graduates pursued such careers).

Other benefits of the Graduate Center Fellowship include eligibility for low-cost individual or family health insurance. Also new in 2013 are Full Tuition Fellowships for 100 students for five years. These come without stipends or health insurance eligibility. (Continuing a long-term trend toward increased student support, all incoming doctoral students will receive five years of tuition funding by 2015, except for students in nursing, audiology, public health and social welfare programs).

Not Without Controversy

But reform isn’t uncontroversial, particularly talk about initiatives to address the glut of certain degrees in the academic job market. The center will begin “right-sizing” its own enrollments starting this fall, targeting to cut them by 25 percent by 2015. Kelly said this goal is mostly applicable to programs with job “supply and demand” issues, such as traditional humanities departments. (Center administrators declined to name specific programs most affected by the cuts, but Robinson said individual department enrollment cut levels resulted from extensive conversations with those departments, who are free to institute them on their own timelines – all at once or progressively – through 2015.)

The provost said faculty reaction to the fellowships have been positive, and that departments will retain the authority to decide how coursework and coverage, among other details, will be impacted. At the same time, the center is making clear that departments need to chart paths for doctoral students that -- even if longer than five years -- don't involve anything close to a decade.

Faculty also have been assured that no course cuts are planned for departments with lower enrollments, Kelly said, as funding stability gives the center the ability to “proceed rationally, rather than out of desperation.” Robinson agreed. “There’s no stomach for or any temptation to close down these departments,” he said. “These departments are intrinsically valuable and we believe strongly in liberal arts.”

More generous fellowships, coupled with an ongoing effort to recruit top faculty, will attract better students – which in turn makes faculty happy, Robinson added. (Because the application deadline for some fall 2013 Ph.D. programs is still open, he said it’s too soon to tell just how much of an impact the reforms will have on admissions.)

Still, not all faculty members are on board.

Ammiel Alcalay, a comparative literature professor at the Graduate Center, said in an e-mail that while more money for students is good, other details of the fellowship could “drastically narrow the aspirational horizons of people, particularly the kind of people that are at CUNY, who might not be absolutely directed toward a particular goal.”

Continuing, he said, “Time-to-degree has become the mantra in management in efforts to ‘digitize’ the academy and cut down drastically on the kind of education that matters most, the kind you can’t plan for or be directed to.”

Alcalay also questioned how lower enrollment levels eventually would impact departments. “There is no question that the reduction in students will lead to the loss of faculty positions, the consolidation of programs and, most worrisome from my point of view, the further appointment of only central faculty at the Graduate Center,” he said, adding that one of the centers’ great strengths is the faculty pool that its position within the greater CUNY consortium affords.

The Graduate Center chapter of CUNY’s Professional Staff Congress hasn’t taken a position yet on the fellowship program, a union spokesman said. CUNY’s Doctoral Students’ Council did not return a request for comment.

If the program is successful, Kelly said it could serve as a model for public institutions looking into doctoral program reform (private Stanford University announced similar initiatives to reduce time-to-degree in recent months, based primarily on full-year funding for five years – something harder to achieve at less-endowed institutions. Duke University launched similar initiatives a little less than a decade ago).

Robinson said he’ll measure success qualitatively and quantitatively, through a combination of metrics, including tracking admissions (application numbers, yield and acceptance rates), progress to several degree milestones, and time-to-degree and placement within and outside of the academy.

Interest Outside CUNY

As CUNY launches its new model, interest in graduate school reform continues to grow.

Michael Bérubé, immediate past president of the Modern Language Association and professor of English at Pennsylvania State University, said in an e-mail he’s “at once curious and agnostic” at the prospect of a five-year humanities doctorate.

“I am hearing a lot of skepticism about it, but this much I know – our current time-to-degree, nine-plus years, is too long,” he said. “[W]hen you have people in their mid-30s looking at a terrible academic job market, having spent their 20s and early 30s in the lowest reaches of the tax code, you’re talking about a brutal system that basically selects for people who are a) independently wealthy or b) willing – perhaps foolishly – to take on massive student debt.”

But because it’s unclear how many institutions will be able to provide 12-month stipends and full tuition for students, he said, “so much remains to be seen.”

Michigan State University will host a conference on the subject in April, with representatives from at  least six universities and higher education associations confirmed to attend (Michigan State already has instituted incentives for reducing time-to-degree, including some summer funding, resulting in a current six-year average across the humanities). Karin Wurst, dean of the College of Arts and Letters, said she hoped the conference would deepen the national conversation on reform by focusing on practical solutions and strategies to tackling not only time-to-degree but “how to open more career paths for our students with humanities Ph.D.s who might be interested in areas beyond academia.”

John Stevenson, dean of the Graduate School at the University of Colorado at Boulder, which has launched initiatives to reduce time-to-degree in several of its humanities departments in recent years, will participate in the conference.

“I can’t emphasize enough what I think is the moral imperative here,” he said of graduate school reform. Because reducing time-to-degree not only gets graduate students out on the job market faster with less debt but also frees up available resources for more students wishing to pursue higher education, “It’s the right thing to do.”

Debra Stewart, president of the Council of Graduate Schools, said the council has been studying graduate school reform for a number of years through its Ph.D. Completion Project, and said there’s no data to support that “longer is better is terms of the student experience.” But more rigorous career tracking for Ph.D.s inside and outside academe could lead to a better understanding of time-to-degree and employment opportunities, she added.

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