A Thursday report by a faculty working group at Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences characterized the school’s financial aid, advising framework, and admissions practices as “no longer sufficient” in an era of rising living costs and increased competition with other universities.
“The threat to Harvard’s preeminence in graduate education is real and sustained, and it requires urgent action,” the report states.
The GSAS Admissions and Graduate Education Working Group, or GAGE, was launched last year by GSAS Dean Emma Dench as part of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences strategic planning process. Composed of 14 administrators and tenured faculty from across GSAS, the working group reviewed GSAS data on advising, finances, mental health, time to degree, teaching loads, and student outcomes after graduation — culminating in a 50-page report circulated to students and faculty on Thursday.
The report states that Harvard’s financial aid packages may no longer be enough to attract and retain graduate students.
While 6 percent of last year’s 23,370 GSAS applicants received offers of admission, only 64 percent chose to enroll, according to the report.
While that represents only a slight decrease from the previous year, departments are finding it harder to recruit their preferred candidates, the report finds.
The report attributes part of the struggle to the high cost of living in Cambridge — and financial aid offers that can’t keep up. Though many graduate students “face skyrocketing rents and food insecurity,” Harvard does not provide subsidized housing to graduate students.
Moreover, GSAS pays graduate students as much as $5,000 to $15,000 less compared to many peer institutions per year, according to the report.
In recent years, peer institutions have increased their stipends for graduate students. Last year, Princeton increased stipend support for graduate students by 25 percent. The University of Pennsylvania followed suit, raising its minimum stipend by $8,000 beginning this academic year.
“Harvard must increase its financial support, or risk being left behind,” the report concludes.
Once students are no longer eligible for guaranteed funding, they often take on more teaching fellowships to make ends meet. Most Ph.D. programs at Harvard guarantee that tuition and health fees are funded for six years, while students’ living expenses are funded by guaranteed support through stipends, teaching fellowships, and research assistantships for five years.
“I’m looking ahead to having to pay tuition next year, so I’m teaching more now than I’d like to be,” said a fifth-year graduate student quoted anonymously in the report.
This phenomenon may become a vicious cycle, as high teaching loads make it harder for students to graduate on schedule. In fact, the programs with the longest expected time to graduation are also the programs with the highest teaching loads per student, according to the report.
“Students sometimes take on so much teaching that progress to the degree is impeded,” the report states.
Even as the report urges the University to bolster financial aid, it maintains that increased spending has placed a burden on the FAS budget.
Because of increased demand for financial aid, the use of unrestricted FAS funds — as opposed to restricted endowments — has grown at what the report termed “an unsustainable rate.” Spending on financial aid from unrestricted funds increased from $41.7 million in 2015 to a peak of $60.0 million in 2020.
Nonetheless, the report opposes the reduction of cohort sizes, claiming it could slow the University’s “research engine” and place excessive teaching responsibilities on individual students.
Instead, the working group recommended “making graduate fellowships the feature of a fundraising campaign.”
Student exit surveys conducted since 2020 found that 84 to 94 percent of students described their advising relationship as “excellent,” “very good,” or “good.” A majority of Ph.D. graduates expressed that they would do their Ph.D. over again with the same field, mentor, and institution.
Nonetheless, “students who experience less effective advising experiences cannot be dismissed,” the report reads, citing the lack of structured advising processes as a common problem.
The report encourages departments to establish mechanisms to track the advising loads taken on by faculty members so that advising could be distributed more evenly across faculty and “overload” on individual advisors would be reduced. It also proposes an “advising village” framework — providing multiple mentors or points of contact for each student.
The report’s review of advising at GSAS also reflects heightened competition in the academic job market, with fewer tenure-track job openings available even as the annual number of Ph.D. graduates has risen over the past few decades.
The report identifies increases in the percentage of Arts and Humanities and Social Sciences students entering postdoctoral positions after graduation. These jobs, the report suggests, serve as a “waiting room” for graduates unable to find tenure-track options. Meanwhile, almost half of postdocs in the Sciences and Engineering do not move on to tenure-track positions.
“Programs have a responsibility to communicate a realistic sense of the job market in their field,” the report reads, recommending that departments “identify students whose personal and professional goals would be better served by proudly graduating with a master’s degree.”
The report also hints at issues with department culture, including environments that favor students who received their undergraduate degrees from an Ivy League school or another prestigious global university.
An anonymous fourth-year graduate student cited in the report said that support structures for “outsiders” did not compensate for a social divide between students and faculty who attended elite schools and those who did not.
“In my department, it doesn’t feel like I’m being deliberately excluded, but all the Ivy/Oxbridge kids teach together, hang out together, and gravitate toward faculty who are from that same background,” the student said.
The report suggests that some admissions criteria within GSAS, including an emphasis on prior research experience and training, may give a leg up to students from elite institutions.
“Admissions committees should evaluate existing practices and biases (including whether applicants from Harvard, other Ivy+ and peer institutions, and Oxbridge are favored),” the report states.
The report’s recommendations will be implemented starting fall 2023.
—Staff writer Tilly R. Robinson can be reached at email@example.com.
—Staff writer Tosin O. Akinsiku can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.