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Clarification on Tuition and Financial Support for Ph.D. Students

By Paula D. McClain
Dean of The Graduate School and Vice Provost for Graduate Education

A November 18 column in The Chronicle, “The hidden cost of Graduate School at Duke,” suggested that Duke Ph.D. students in their sixth year or beyond are charged a “hidden” fee of more than $6,500 a year to finish their degree, a fee that they were not told about when they accepted admission to Duke. We at The Graduate School know that some of our students do face financial challenges, and addressing those challenges has been one of our priorities. I would, however, like to provide clarification on several important points from the column.

First, there is no hidden cost. The “continuation fee” discussed in the column is actually the tuition for the fall and spring semesters, and this is clearly listed on the school website as part of the cost of attendance for students in their fourth year or beyond.

Second, the column said The Graduate School did not answer repeated requests for clarification regarding the tuition. In fact, in February, after reviewing the Graduate & Professional Student Council’s resolution requesting that we reduce or eliminate tuition for humanities Ph.D. students in their sixth year or beyond, I emailed then-G.P.S.C. president Ben Shellhorn. In the email, I also offered to meet with the students who proposed the resolution. Although I have not heard back about a meeting, that offer still stands, and I encourage students who have questions about this issue to contact me.

The Graduate School carefully considered the G.P.S.C. resolution, but ultimately decided against it because it would have reduced our ability to maintain the level of guaranteed financial support that all Ph.D. students receive in their first five years.

Third, the column suggested that the school’s tuition is an outlier among its peer institutions. We regularly compare our tuition and our financial support package against our peers’, and we are very competitive on both fronts. We have to be in order to attract the best students.

Fourth, while the column cited national times to degree for Ph.D. recipients, it’s important to note that the time to degree at Duke is significantly shorter. Duke Ph.D. students in the humanities and social sciences finish in 6.3 and 5.8 years, respectively, compared to national medians of 9.2 and 7.7. That makes a big difference for our students financially, and it is one of the reasons we want to create an incentive and help students complete their degrees in less time. For those interested, the school’s website lists time to degree for each of our programs.

In the 2014–2015 academic year, we had nearly 2,500 Ph.D. students, including 425 in their sixth year or beyond. Of those 425, 81 paid their own tuition. We know that at least some of those students face financial challenges. Our goal is for that number to eventually become zero, and we have been trying to address our students’ needs in a number of ways.

For example, the school offers competitive fellowships designed specifically for students in the advanced stages of their careers. We also encourage the students’ departments to cover their tuition if they have the financial capacity to do so. In addition, last year we began providing guaranteed summer research fellowships to first- and second-year Ph.D. students, which then opened up more of our competitive summer fellowships for students in the later stages of their careers.

There is more to do before we can reach our goal, and we appreciate the input from our students. Many of our best programs have grown out of their ideas, so I encourage students to continue reaching out to The Graduate School with their questions and suggestions.