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GSC survey finds graduate students most concerned with academic, financial insecurity

GSC survey finds graduate students most concerned with academic, financial insecurity

GSC survey finds graduate students most concerned with academic, financial insecurity
May 02
12:01 2020

The Graduate Student Council conducted an ongoing survey to measure the difficulties graduate students face during the coronavirus pandemic, see how GSC could best help them and called on city officials and the university for aid. 

A total of 3,342 people responded to the survey. The largest concerns among graduate students, according to the survey, are nearly tied between “academic insecurity” at 13.61 percent, or 455 respondents, and “rent and/or utilities” at 13.58 percent, or 454 respondents. Food insecurity, job security, grant/scholarship funding and medical/health concerns were also listed as concerns of graduate students, among other things. 

GSC President Tiffany Miller said graduate students need the help of university and city officials to address these concerns.

“We have students sending us messages daily begging for help,” Miller said. “We have students that are unsure how they are going to make it from day-to-day, much less until the undefined end of the pandemic.”

Miller sent the survey results to city officials asking they implement a city-wide rent and utilities freeze through at least the end of June, city-sponsored WiFi hotspots for students and overall increased advocacy for community needs both within and outside of the city’s jurisdiction (such as student visa extensions for international students). 

City councilperson Paul Meltzer offered some suggestions for actions domestic and international graduate students in need of assistance could take.

“The best bet is to send anyone looking to navigate their available benefits to the United Way of Denton County where they’re setting up to give that kind of guidance to individuals about their specific situations,” Meltzer said via email. “My initial thought is that an international student facing a recent layoff due to coronavirus should encourage their employer to enroll in the Paycheck Protection Program whereby the federal government ultimately pays to keep people on the payroll even if the business is temporarily idle. That advice would also go for anyone who has been working but doesn’t have a social security number. The employer’s payroll is covered without regard to who the workers happen to be. The employer would set it up through their current banker.”

Beyond the financial and academic concerns, respondents who listed “other” as a concern were able to anonymously elaborate. Some students listed mental health concerns related to the pandemic.

“A colleague of mine has already killed himself last week to the issues of isolation, financial insecurity, and insane coursework and TA demands with lack of understanding from those who assign things without thinking about the real impact at a moment [like] this,” an anonymous respondent said. 

Another issue graduate students mentioned was child care and caring for elderly family members during the pandemic.

“Three kids under [the age of] five and a husband who is ‘essential’ means I have no [child care],” an anonymous respondent said. “I am finding working on assignments in the same capacity I was before much more difficult without child care options and pass/no pass would significantly help that. I don’t understand why graduate students weren’t included in [pass/no pass].”

While the survey was not intended to address pass/no pass, Miller said it was something many students brought up and said they would benefit from.

Pass/no pass grading was implemented for undergraduates, but not graduate students. Miller has been pushing for the university to extend it for graduate students and created a petition with 460 signatures.

Miller said many graduate students are worried about their grades, but with the added worries of their adult responsibilities, grades have become the least of their priorities. Implementing pass/no pass may mean they are able to focus on other concerns without as much stress over their degrees.

“One person very astutely commented they can’t just pack up and go home to their parents because they are the parent,” Miller said. “A lot of people in my programs are in their 30s, 40s or 50s. There’s so many grad students who work full-time in addition to going to school. A bunch of those students’ jobs have been shut down. These [issues] are the priority right now. You’re thinking about how there’s a pandemic, health concerns of our kids or our parents or ourselves.”

Provost Jennifer Cowley said in a previous faculty senate meeting the university is not worried about graduate students’ grades falling due to the pandemic. But Miller said while the university might not be concerned, many graduate students are.

“[Academic insecurity] is the number one concern on the survey,” Miller said. “A B for a graduate is [the equivalent of] a C for undergrad. A C for a graduate is a D for undergrads. I don’t think it’s quite setting in — at least on the surface or in responses they’re offering— that we’re not in a normal time right now, so it doesn’t matter that historically and statistically graduate students have been fine.”

The university has instead asked that professors be more lenient and compromising, asked graduate programs to consider waiving the requirement for graduate students to have no more than two Cs in courses and has allowed students in the fifth or sixth year of their doctoral studies an additional one semester of eligibility for their fellowship or Technology Venture Program. 

“It’s rare that a [graduate] student would earn a C or lower, and typically we have policies at the graduate level that vary from program to program,” Cowley said. “In certain graduate programs, it’s not GPA driven necessarily, and because it varies by academic program, we wanted to provide the freedom at the academic program level to be able to address the needs of our graduate students on a case-by-case basis. We’ve asked them to have flexibility.”

One of the university’s justifications for pass/no pass Cowley gave, saying graduate students are not as concerned with GPAs as undergraduates applying for graduate programs, did not sit well with Miller.

“I’m a masters student and I’m interested in a Ph.D. program,” Miller said. “Do you think I care about my GPA? Yeah. Do you think the schools where I’m applying are going to care about my GPA? Yes. Five to 10 years from now when the world forgets, as it does, and you’re applying somewhere else or trying to get a promotion, this semester could easily come back to haunt you.”

Cowley said the evaluation of GPA for doctoral programs is not the same as it is for undergraduates.

“[The evaluations are] a holistic analysis of fit with that program and fit with an individual faculty member,” Cowley said. “While GPA is a factor, it’s not the determining factor in the same way that it would be at other levels of admission. With the denotation around this being a special semester and graduate programs across the country understanding we’ve had this super weird experience, it seemed less critical of a factor.”

Despite the petition, Cowley said the university will not change its decision on graduate student grading.

“The decision on pass/no pass has been implemented and we do not intend to make any changes,” Cowley said. “We are, of course, interested in hearing about all of the issues that our students — both undergraduate and graduate — are facing now and want to do everything we can to support our students’ success.”

Cowley gave the following list of alternative ways the university is assisting graduate students:

  • Funding has been allocated through the Stay Green and federal allocation of recovery funds — the university is continuing to identify opportunities to support students in need of funding.
  •  We have maintained all graduate student TA/TF lines, the tuition benefit program, and graduate student scholarships and are committed to continuing to maintain that funding.
  •  Toulouse Graduate School travel grants were modified to provide funding so that graduate students can attend conferences that are being held virtually through the summer and anticipate continuing into next academic year as needed.
  •  Hotspots and laptops were made available for students via the library because we recognize that not all students have the technology to work remotely. We have implemented remote computer lab access to support students accessing specialized software. And particularly for graduate students, we have been able to provide statistical software for download to home computers.
  • To the largest extent possible we have prioritize maintaining student employment in an effort to reduce the negative impact on our employed graduate students.
  • Counseling support for graduate students via #GradLife Mental Health Support Groups is being expanded to include online as soon as the HIPAA issues are resolved so that the counseling groups can resume online.
  • The Toulouse Graduate School Professional Development Workshops are being delivered online.
  • The Toulouse Graduate School Dissertation and Thesis Boot Camps will be offered online
  • The Graduate Student Writing Center and Statistics Lab are both taking online appointments

As for Miller’s demands for pass/no pass, she said she got the response she expected, but not the one she was hoping for. GSC will keep the survey open through the summer to continue gathering data to see how they can best support graduate students.

“We’ve been pushing for pass/no pass,” Miller said. “But there was always a real possibility they are not going to change their minds no matter what we do. It’s always a possibility with the administration with any issue, so we started working on backup plans in early April.”

Graph by Lizzy Spangler

Featured Image: The UNT union sits empty after the cancelation of in-person classes due to a increase of COVID-19 cases in Denton County. Difficulties during the coronavirus pandemic were recorded through the Graduate Student Council survey. Image by John Anderson

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Brooke Colombo

Brooke Colombo

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