Graduate school tuition doesn’t tend to grab the headlines that undergraduate tuition does, if only because Ph.D. students often aren’t paying their own way. But both Cornell University  and the University of Pennsylvania are standardizing tuition rates across schools and colleges to keep pace with changes in interdisciplinary Ph.D. education -- and, in Cornell's case, to stretch research grants further.
While Penn’s plan is revenue-neutral, Cornell, in a bid to be more competitive with its public university peers in terms of pricing, is planning overall tuition reductions to decrease the amount of outside grant money diverted to graduate student support.
“Our tuition is just very, very high compared to a lot of the competitor schools. If you’re talking about the Ivies we weren’t out of line at all, but if your competitors are Michigan, Berkeley, some of the other distinguished public universities, our tuition is much, much higher,” said Alison G. Power, dean of the graduate school at Cornell.
“Faculty who are trying to support graduate students on their grants feel that they are in a poor position to compete.”
Cornell, a land-grant private institution that operates a mix of state-supported (contract) and privately funded (endowed) colleges, is reducing its graduate tuition in the latter colleges by 10.1 percent next year from $32,800 to $29,500 , while freezing graduate tuition at $20,800 at the colleges that receive direct state support. The goal is to continue dropping graduate tuition at the endowed colleges so there is a uniform tuition rate, across the endowed and contract colleges, of $20,000 by 2011-12, Power said. (The changes apply to research degree programs; professional degree and undergraduate programs are not included.)
Cornell will continue its current policy of funding graduate research assistantships: Half of a student's tuition is financed by the research grant he or she is assigned to, while the remaining half is funded by a university match. However, by 2011-12, if the targeted reductions are in place, Power explained, a principal investigator would have to budget only about $10,000 of grant funding to support a graduate student’s tuition (half the $20,000 total), as opposed to $16,400 (half this year's tuition rate).
"Because the tuition was never paid by graduate students, but from the professor’s research grant, the change does not directly affect graduate students' financial situation," Yu Yu, president of Cornell's Graduate and Professional Student Assembly, said in an e-mail. "As for the indirect impact on graduate students, it depends on how the professors use the savings. They may offer more semesters of support to graduate students who have to find outside funding otherwise; they may recruit more new graduate students but keep the funding duration the same for each student; or they may use the savings on other aspects of their research project, such as equipments and space."
Meanwhile, at Penn, the university opted to standardize annual tuition for Ph.D. students, normalizing it at $24,000 in the first five years of the Ph.D. program and $3,000 annually after that. Currently, doctoral tuition varies across schools and is calculated on a course-by-course basis. (Penn's changes apply only to Ph.D.s.)
“This makes it a lot easier for students to move between the schools in doing work,” said Andrew Binns, the associate provost for education. But beyond encouraging cross-college collaborations, he said, setting a flat annual tuition, instead of using a per-course system, grants professors greater flexibility to balance various components of the Ph.D. degree, including lab, course work and independent research.
"We're trying to make it such that our financial structure wasn't running our academic structure," he said.
The price differential largely won’t affect students directly, other than for students in the sixth year and beyond who are no longer receiving fellowship support, Binns said. The university, he continued, plans to grandfather in changes at that point for paying students who would see increases under the new tuition structure.
Andrew Rennekamp, chairman-elect of the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly at Penn, said the organization generally supports the changes. Currently, “some schools are very hesitant to allow students to take courses in other schools because the tuitions are not equal,” Rennekamp said.
“We like what it’s going to do as far as removing this institutional barrier to interdisciplinary coursework.”