New Policy: Free tuition for graduate assistants or money out of their pockets?

Graduate students released a statement regarding their frustrations with a new tuition remission policy that was passed last semester. The statement has received more than 120 signatures. 

After encouragement from South Dakota State University, the South Dakota Board of Regents passed a tuition remission policy in December 2015 to waive a tuition fee for graduate assistants. The only fee graduate students will have to pay is the General Activity Fee (GAF).

Students stated that they understand the policy will benefit future students, but current graduate students were not consulted prior to the decision and communication about the policy was poorly conducted.

In the statement, students questioned the university on “grants that have no flexibility to increase tuition remission,” and consequently, [students] will soon find their paychecks reduced.

Currently, graduate assistants at South Dakota State pay one-third of the resident graduate tuition rate for courses plus university support fees, GAF and discipline fees.

A graduate assistant is a graduate student serving a supporting role as a teaching assistant, research assistant or administrative assistant, while completing either their master’s or doctorate at SDSU.

Katherine Moratz is in her third year with the Department of Natural Resource Management as a graduate research assistant. She said this policy for current students is unfair.

“It’s a good idea. I don’t disagree with that,” Moratz said. “There just should be some kind of exception to current students.”

Kinchel Doerner, dean of the graduate school, said on average, students take 15 credit hours for the entire year: six in the fall, six in the spring and three in the summer.

In the implementation of this policy, Doerner said every student will be charged for 15 credits per year. This equates to $3,290.25 per year excluding fees, according to 2015-2016 resident tuition per credit hour. The money for the tuition will come out of current student stipends, which, according to Doerner, should result in a net zero loss for students since they would be paying for these credits regardless.

For current students, this can be a problem. They will be charged for 15 credits, no matter the amount of credits remaining. If graduate assistants’ funding sources are able to cover the amount of tuition a student’s stipends are reduced by, those students would have their tuition waived. However, not all students have this option with their funding sources.

According to SDBOR meeting minutes, future students’ 15-credit stipend should remain competitive as funding will be accounted for in grants.

If a student takes more than two years for a masters or four years for a doctorate, they will be charged for credits they are not taking at a rate of 15 credits per year.

Byron Charles Will-Noel, an international student from Africa in the Department of Geography, is frustrated with this policy.

“I haven’t seen a master’s student come out in two years, it takes everybody longer,” Will-Noel said.

This concern is also noted in the graduate students’ statement, “Graduate research assistants are often required to dedicate three or more years for a Master’s and five to six for a Doctorate.”

President David Chicoine said the benefits of this tuition remission would be “clarity, alignment with the marketplace, and [it] would solve cash flow issues for students.”

Implementing the policy will differ depending on each of the departments, according to Joseph Cassady, the head of the Department of Animal Science.

“Each department is expected to manage their budgets in a manner that is most appropriate to them,” Cassady said.

When passing the policy, Chicoine said one hurdle was students might take more than 15 credits, and the university wouldn’t be paid for it.

“It’s not about the money,” Chicoine said, “it’s about the students getting their assistantship fulfilled and getting their master’s degree and getting on with their life.”

Many students are frustrated with the communication of the tuition remission policy. Doerner said he had not communicated with graduate students as a whole prior to the implementation of this policy, but that it was left to go through the departments.

This has left many graduate students frustrated, including Lily Sweikert, a second year doctorate student with the Department of Natural Resource Management.

“They didn’t do any kind of public involvement to anticipate the response of graduate students,” Sweikert said. “That way they could have had a much better way of rolling out the policy in general rather than piecing it together and causing overall frustration that feels like subterfuge.”

No one informed Will-Noel about the policy either.

“I had to go and ask for information, they hadn’t offered any,” Will-Noel said.

Moratz has only two credits left to complete her master’s degree. She’s unsure of what her next step will be.

“I’m really debating if I need to get another job,” Moratz said. “I would really like to know what’s going on so I can make that decision.”