Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Friday, December 18, 2009

New policy to provide greater structure, support for Ph.D. students

Rackham Graduate School Dean Janet Weiss updated the Board of Regents on Thursday about a continuous enrollment policy that is designed to help Ph.D. students make steady progress toward their degrees.

Under the policy, Ph.D. students would register each fall and winter semester from the beginning of their programs until they graduate, with exceptions for students on approved leaves of absence.

Continuous enrollment would help provide the structure, support and access to university services and resources year-round that Ph.D. students need to successfully complete their degrees. It also would improve U-M’s degree-completion rates, Weiss said.

Approximately two-thirds of students who enroll in a Ph.D. program at U-M earn a doctorate. “That’s better than the national average, but we should be much better than the national average; we should be a national leader,” Weiss said.

Improved student support and higher completion rates would give U-M’s doctoral programs a competitive advantage in recruiting students, she added.

The policy includes the opportunity for students to request leaves of absence for family, health, dependent care, military service or other personal reasons. A dispute resolution board with an equal number of Ph.D. students and academic administrators would be created to handle any issues arising for students who are concerned about fair treatment related to any aspect of the continuous enrollment policy. She noted that the policy would allow Ph.D. students the same freedom they now have to travel to conduct research or engage in scholarly activities.

Weiss stressed that the policy is fiscally responsible. It can be implemented without creating additional costs to the university or requiring students pay more tuition.

“Ph.D. students are different from most other students in that well over 90 percent of the tuition for Ph.D. students is paid by university sources,” Weiss said. The Rackham Executive Board, an elected faculty body of senior faculty from across the schools and colleges, deliberated about the policy extensively, and approved it in December 2008. All 16 of U-M’s schools and colleges with Ph.D. programs support the policy and all have identified sources of tuition support for Ph.D. students in their units.

“I’m here today because we will ask you in June to approve a reduction in the candidacy tuition rate for Ph.D. students,” Weiss told the regents. The financial plan for implementing the policy is contingent on the regents’ approval to lower the tuition rate for Rackham Ph.D. candidates, effective for the 2010-11 academic year.

Provost Teresa Sullivan said her budget team has analyzed funding plans for the continuous enrollment policy and is confident it will work.

U-M’s proposed continuous enrollment policy is similar to practices at other major research universities, Weiss said. It also would complement other U-M initiatives to improve Ph.D. degree completion rates, including:

• Strengthening faculty mentoring.

• Helping students overcome obstacles to writing their dissertations.

• Improving financial support for students so they can devote themselves to full-time study.

The continuous enrollment policy is the result of two years of discussions with many groups of faculty and graduate students, deans and other administrators, faculty graduate program directors, staff who support doctoral students, and members of Rackham Student Government.