By Doug Ward

A provision in the tax bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday has the potential to upend graduate education.

The bill would force graduate students to pay taxes on tuition waivers they routinely receive as part of their appointments. That would raise the cost of graduate education substantially and could easily drive away potential students.

Erin Rousseau, a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, estimated that she would pay an additional $10,000 in taxes if the House bill became law. The cost would certainly be lower for students at a public university like KU, but a change in the tax law would add a few thousand dollars a year in expenses. Low pay and the costs of insurance, health care and housing already make graduate education a struggle for many students. Additional costs could certainly put graduate education out of reach for many others.

In a column in The New York Times, Rousseau wrote:

“It would make meeting living expenses nearly impossible, barring all but the wealthiest students from pursuing a Ph.D.”

The number of graduate students at public universities grew 17 percent between 2000 and 2010 but has remained relatively unchanged since then, according the National Center for Education Statistics. That could easily change, though, if the cost of degrees becomes too burdensome.

American students are already shying away from graduate degrees in STEM fields, largely because they can get good jobs with just a bachelor’s degree, The Times reports. International students have filled the void, but immigration restrictions and the political storm surrounding them have created unease among international graduate students and pushed many of them away.

The House tax plan could be yet another blow to graduate education. Let’s hope that more a thoughtful plan prevails as the Senate debates tax legislation.

Another challenge to education in Wisconsin

Wisconsin continued its throttling of higher education last week as the state’s regents voted to merge the state’s 13 two-year colleges with its seven universities, the Wisconsin State Journal reports. The change will take place in the summer.

Under the plan, the two-year colleges will become branches of the universities, although students will continue to pay lower tuition rates at the two-year institutions. The regents said the plan would save money and would eventually result in job cuts, though they provided no specifics. The regents president, Ray Cross, said the initiative was not “a fully developed plan with all the details worked out,” according to the State Journal.

The regents pushed the plan forward with little consultation of the colleges or universities involved. Seven former college leaders implored the regents to reconsider the plan, saying it was being shoved through so hastily that the ramifications had not been considered. They expressed concern about the financial model – or lack of one – and said the plan could threaten the future of the two-year colleges. Two experts interviewed by the State Journal said the move was a politically inspired plan to consolidate a top-down power structure.

The consolidation vote was the latest move in a political battle that has left the university system severely diminished. The Wisconsin governor and legislature have been at odds with the universities for years, weakening tenure, cutting funding, and even restricting protests on campus.

Education Dive, a publication that reports on higher education, said the actions in Wisconsin should be a warning to other states. “Letting lawmakers know that a lack of stability could have a potentially negative long-term impact on enrollment rates, making it harder for the system to thrive, is key,” Education Dive says.

That’s a roundabout way of saying that other university systems could be brought to their knees as easily as Wisconsin’s has.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

My trips to the office of Paul Jess often seemed liked counseling sessions.

I was a master’s student at KU in 1990, and I’d go to Jess’s office with a stream of problems: My students weren’t responding as well as I’d hoped, and some even seemed hostile toward me in the classroom. My thesis wasn’t going as well as I’d expected, and I didn’t know where to begin a search for doctoral programs.

It all seemed so grave then (and seems so innocuous now).

Jess would lean back in his office chair, fold his hands over his bulging stomach, and listen intently. Then he’d smile and nod and explain what I could to do.Teaching Matters Nov. 13 2013

He could be surly, even crotchety, but he had nothing but patience and sound advice when I visited his office. He had a magic filing cabinet that seemed to contain solutions for every possible problem I had in class, and he was ever generous in sharing anything and everything. The folders from that filing cabinet, accompanied by his sage advice, always calmed my nerves and saved me from embarrassment with my students.

Jess never understood why I wanted to be a professor. In nearly every conversation we had, he’d try to dissuade me by explaining all the problems he saw in academia: the long hours, the stacks of grading, the troublesome students, the even more troublesome colleagues, the endless committee meetings, the out-of-whack research expectations, and an academic culture that gave lip service but little reward to high-quality teaching.

When I insisted that I knew what I was getting into, he would shake his head and sigh. Then, like the mentor he was, he’d point me in a direction where I could find my own answers, experience my own failures, and achieve my own successes.

I thought of Jess when I read this month’s issue of Teaching Matters, which focuses on the challenges of graduate education and on the importance of mentoring.

Here’s what you’ll find:

Judy Eddy writes about a paradox that often exists in graduate education.

Dan Bernstein writes about tailoring graduate programs to meet the expectations and aspirations of students and the needs of the university. This includes opportunities for students to develop their teaching in addition to their research.

Ann Martinez speaks with Angela Lumpkin, Susan Lunte and Charles Eldredge and some of their former students about the importance of mentoring.

Lumpkin, a professor of health, sport, and exercise sciences, explains in an interview with Martinez that a mentor must treat each graduate student uniquely, “setting high standards, but then working with them to achieve those standards.”

Reading her words makes me realize how much good mentors have in common.


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and a fellow at the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.