Biddy’s initiative helps Grads, too (April 2009)

[This article originally appeared in the April 15th issue of the Badger Herald]

Chancellor Biddy Martin’s tuition surcharge plan is called the Madison Initiative for Undergraduates, but the big winners are graduate students.

By now, the details are well-known. Undergraduate tuition rises faster than normal for the next four years. Half of the new money goes to expand financial aid; the rest goes to opening more sections of bottleneck courses and better student services.

So what’s in it for graduate students? Probably not an increase in direct financial aid. Although nothing published so far rules it out, there would be hell to pay if this money were handed straight over to graduate students who are also struggling to meet tuition. Graduate students also aren’t clamoring to take Calc 221, Econ 302, or any of the other “gateway” courses many undergraduates find are closed by the time they get to register.

Graduate students gain from this plan in ways the administration doesn’t talk about. The faculty expansion is pitched as a way to open up more classes, but it could equally be cast as an expansion of our research capacity. This means more faculty members, and even better, more junior faculty members for our graduate students to work with. (A bit of advice for younger graduate students: All things being equal, always work with the junior faculty member. Your work is their tenure case, so they’re especially motivated to see you succeed.)

The new course sections are also essential financial aid for graduate students in the form of new TA positions. This helps more than just having new open sections. Without enough TA spots, departments can’t guarantee their admitted graduate students funding, especially in departments that don’t have a lot of external grants. Good students usually have multiple offers, so the best students pass the UW up and go be outstanding TAs somewhere else.

Nearly all career service efforts in the university don’t discriminate between graduate and undergraduate students, so any improvements help everyone. The same goes for the technology enhancements that might be part of the initiative.

One myth that seems to float around the Madison Initiative is it won’t help much in the first year. This is bunk. If the Regents approve the plan this spring, there is no reason to believe we won’t see its effects in the fall. The financial aid can obviously be made immediately available, and if UW hurries it should be able to put much of the advising in place by the fall, which will help seniors as much as it helps freshmen. Finding new faculty members is not even as difficult as it might seem. The decline in faculty numbers is from not replacing as many faculty members who leave, which is different from not hiring anyone. Every department has been interviewing faculty candidates all along, and there is a surplus of qualified candidates they could hire. If the deans gave the word, the UW could easily extend a few more offers and meet the modest goals for faculty expansion this year. It is entirely feasible that graduate and undergraduate students could see benefits right away.

Several objections to the plan may be raised. First, for the small minority whining that the sole focus of the new faculty should be more teaching, get over it. UW-Madison is not just another UW System school that happens to have a better football team than the others. Research and teaching are on equal footing here.

Second, graduate students seem to get all of this without having to pay anything for it. So, out of fairness, maybe graduate students should be pitching in. However, for many, their tuition is remitted and an increase would just be a shell game of the UW increasing a fee that it paid to itself. Others are already struggling to pay. Careful study would be needed first.

My only real objection to the Madison Initiative is it is basically an admission that progressive taxation has failed us and we have to do it ourselves. From a practical standpoint, the tax code is a much more precise way to measure families’ circumstances. Simple forms like the FAFSA don’t have the same flexibility, and there will certainly be a few students who really can’t afford the increase but no existing program will be able to help. However, there are more students who are being hurt by the status quo that need help now. The perfect shouldn’t be the enemy of the good, and so in the interests of all students, I support the Madison Initiative.

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