Letter from the President: The Cost of Graduate Education Task Force

By Suzanne T. Ortega

The start of a new calendar year presents the perfect opportunity to reflect on what has been accomplished, what is on the horizon, and assess how best to prioritize our attention and activities.

In graduate education, there are a myriad of issues that come to mind, but I believe the cost of graduate education is the most important issue we’re currently confronting.

At the doctoral level, there is a trend towards campus leaders reducing PhD cohort size to increase graduate student stipends. This may be helpful in meeting legitimate calls for better graduate student support and balancing today’s budget but may make it difficult to meet the challenges of the advanced workforce and scholarly enterprise.

There’s also continued skepticism about the value proposition of the master’s degree from media and policy makers. In fact, as I write, policy makers are attempting to come up with ways to make higher education more affordable, but, at least in some regards, at the expense of graduate education.

These trends may mitigate costs for students, but our country may pay the ultimate price in lost talent development. Now more than ever, we need to find ways to proactively mitigate costs to students and ensure the resources necessary to the delivery of high-quality graduate programs.

To do this, I have convened a taskforce of approximately fifteen of our CGS member deans to explore these issues and develop a framework for helping graduate education stakeholders in making the decisions that optimize the accessibility, affordability, and quality of graduate education. The full taskforce will convene every few months to give an update on working group discussions and activities. CGS staff will invite experts to address the taskforce on several topics, including higher education financing, the current labor market for graduate degree holders, and the individual and societal value proposition of graduate education.

Our committee members include co-chairs Graham Hammill, University of Buffalo, SUNY and Michael Cunningham, Tulane University; Kathryn Boor, Cornell University; Michael Crowder, Miami University; Mark Garrison, Morgan State University; William Karpus, University of Wisconsin-Madison; Chevelle Newsome, California State University, Sacramento; Rodney Priestley, Princeton University; Brandy Randall, Oakland University; Mike Solomon, University of Michigan; Nicole Stedman, University of Florida; Colleen Webb, Colorado State University; Joy Williamson-Lott, University of Washington; and Doug Woods, Marquette University.

Amy Scott, CGS associate vice president for government relations and public policy, and I both serve as ex-officio members and Eriech Tapia, CGS government relations and public policy officer, staffs the taskforce.

The committee had its first meeting back in December, and Dr. Robert Kelchen from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville gave a presentation titled “Issues in Graduate and Professional Education Affordability.” His presentation discussed the three main issues affecting affordability: graduate student stipends, loans and repayment, and the return on investment for students. Together we discussed income-driven repayment plans and the Gainful Employment and Financial Value Transparency regulations and their impacts on reducing debt for students and on enrollment in master’s degrees.

The taskforce met again last week on Tuesday and heard from Wendy Boland, Graduate Dean from American University, who presented on models and methods for comprehensively assessing the full institutional costs associated with graduate program delivery.

Given the complexity of the issue, the taskforce will be divided into three working groups that will also meet once a month.

Working Group Charges:

Graduate Student Compensation: This group will address issues such as institutional support, stipend levels, graduate student assistantships, tuition waivers, and other forms of support (food, housing, transportation, insurance, childcare, etc.). This working group will spend time on institutional funding. The overarching goal of this working group is to address the topic of how graduate education is financed and any equity issues concerning graduate assistantships. This group could develop a deliverable for university presidents and provosts; graduate students and families; and the lawmakers. Any documents produced by this working group could be especially important for university leadership, by explaining to university presidents, chancellors, and provosts the intricacies of graduate student financing.

Affordability and Return on Investment: This working group will address the pressing issues of affordability and Return on Investment (ROI), which are two issues of concern for graduate students and lawmakers. Working group members may spend time on issues such as: (1) the cost of master’s education and fee-based programs that pay for other education programs; (2) graduate certificates and stackable credentials; (3) in-person, online, or hybrid learning models; (4) providing greater transparency about costs and career outcomes; (5) alternate career pathways for master’s and doctoral degrees; and (6) difference in cost and outcomes between research and professional degrees. In terms of costs, working group members may discuss issues such as tuition benefits, faculty workload, and student support services. Lawmakers and the public may not know or understand that these are costs and not revenue, and it may be beneficial to explain the differences between university costs and university revenue. The audience for the work produced by this working group could be graduate deans, academic deans, faculty, graduate students, and lawmakers.

Models and Sources of Financial Support: This working group will discuss federal, state, and corporate funding for graduate education. Members will spend time and attention on extramural funding. This working group may also explore how different funding models can/could manage costs and optimize student success. The document/deliverable this working group produces could be especially helpful in identifying information and data for graduate deans and academic deans on the sources of funding available to students and institutions, and in informing the development of the CGS Federal Policy Agenda.

By the end of this year, we aim to have an action plan that our members can use to implement strategies on their campuses that will help make graduate education more affordable and accessible for all students. Please keep watch for more communications from me on this important topic. The quality of our programs and the security of our workforce and economy depends on it.

Have a safe, productive and healthy 2024.




Suzanne Ortega
President, CGS