The University of Chicago announced a push  Wednesday to significantly improve the stipends and benefits that doctoral students receive in the humanities and social sciences -- with one goal being to speed up their time to Ph.D. completion.
Chicago will spend an additional $50 million over the next six years so that new graduate students in humanities and the social sciences are assured of five-year packages that will typically include, as a base package, tuition, a $19,000 annual stipend for living expenses, health insurance, and two summers of research support at $3,000 a summer. In comparison, current packages run four or five years, do not include summer research funds or (in most cases) health insurance, and feature a range of stipends from $4,000 to $18,000, with some students not receiving anything.
Comparing the value of stipend packages from institution to institution is difficult because living expenses vary widely, and many institutions have wide variation among departments. But several experts outside Chicago -- while asking not to be quoted because of the lack of good comparable data -- said that they believed these packages would place Chicago among the more competitive institutions in the country in terms of stipends graduate students receive, and that Chicago has not consistently been in that group in recent years.
While the additional funds will go to the 250 new doctoral students who enroll each year at Chicago in the humanities and social sciences, the university is also spending $1.5 million to provide health insurance to current doctoral students.
In a statement, Robert J. Zimmer, Chicago's president, said: “Our graduate programs have distinguished the university and influenced graduate training across higher education. It is our obligation to support these programs at the highest level, allowing us to continue to attract emerging scholars who will shape academic fields and set the intellectual agenda in the decades to come.”
A major goal of the effort is to speed up the time it takes graduate students to finish their doctorates. As is the case now at Chicago, students will need to get money from other sources after their packages expire, but the hope is that by providing significantly more complete packages as students start, time to degree can become shorter. According to Chicago, time to degree is currently speediest in economics and psychology, which average 5.5 and 5 years, respectively. For most other programs, the average is around 8 years. Nationally, the most recent data from the National Science Foundation  found time to completion at 11.3 years in the humanities and 10 years in the social sciences -- time spans viewed by most experts on graduate education (not to mention most graduate students) as far too long.
Of Chicago's new effort, "we expect this will improve the experience of students while they are here, and also tighten the time to degree," said Martha Roth, deputy provost for research and education.
Debra W. Stewart, president of the Council of Graduate Schools, said she saw the Chicago announcement as significant, but cautioned against assuming that more money alone would deal with the problem of Ph.D. programs that take too long.
"I'm delighted to see Chicago make this kind of commitment to the humanities and social sciences. Giving students this kind of support and some sense of the permanency of their support does remove factors that increase both time to degree and attrition rates," she said.
But she added that when trying to get students to finish doctorates, "money is important, but it's not all about money."
"This will allow Chicago to look at other factors that influence the likelihood of students completing a program," she said. Among them are "match of student to program," mentoring of students, clarity on expectations for doctoral study and the job market. She warned that five years is "vastly off the mark in terms of humanities completion rates," so if Chicago wants its initial grants to get students a long way toward the Ph.D., it will need to do more than just provide better stipends.
What she said was encouraging was that Chicago was making a major effort to change the equation for financing graduate education. Some combination of efforts -- including stipend improvements -- might well make a real difference, she said. "Five years would be very short for a humanities Ph.D.," she said. "But that doesn't mean it should be or always will be."
Annie McClanahan, a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley and president of the Graduate Student Caucus of the Modern Language Association, said she was pleased to see these improvements for Chicago's graduate students. But she noted that many graduate students with unions have been able to win stipend increases, health insurance and other benefits in contracts, and said that private universities -- which have rejected unionization -- should allow such unions if they want "to serve all grad students better."