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Strength of research linked to competitive graduate stipends

Binghamton University recognizes the direct connection between first-class research and top-flight graduate students and is taking steps-beginning with an initiative to increase graduate support by $1.5 million through 2007-to assure that it continues to be home to both.

By raising its annual graduate stipends by an average of about $4,000, the University aims to be more competitive in its efforts to attract the best and brightest graduate students.

“The future of Binghamton University as a research institution is dependent on graduate students, and stipends are the way to recruit the best students,” Provost Mary Ann Swain said.

The effort is a priority spelled out in the strategic plan, she noted.

Why are graduate students so vital?

Faculty members look to them for support in research and teaching, while undergraduates count on them as research supervisors and teaching assistants.

“Graduate students are part of building the intellectual life and reputation of a program,” said Nancy Stamp, vice provost and dean of the Graduate School.

The University has long aimed to be in the top 25 percent when it comes to stipends at public universities in the United States, Stamp said.

But in recent years, as graduate support rose elsewhere, Binghamton lost that foothold. The national average in 2004-05 was $15,600; stipends at Binghamton that year averaged about $10,000.

Binghamton’s smaller stipends meant that faculty members sometimes could not recruit the talented students they wanted to bring to the University.

“We’ve been watching this closely,” Stamp said. “We reached a point where the gap was just too big.”

Areas where this new initiative has had a major impact include chemistry, where stipends rose about $4,000, and education and anthropology, where stipends rose about $6,000.

Binghamton has more than anecdotal evidence about this situation, Stamp noted. The former Nebraska Stipend Survey, an annual report that examined graduate support nationally, is now being undertaken by Binghamton. So hard numbers from a variety of disciplines are available to campus decision-makers.

Attrition in doctoral programs – nationally and at Binghamton – hovers around 50 percent. Better support during an individual’s early years of study will help reduce that problem, Stamp said. Students should be able to devote more time to their studies without worrying about working part time.

Larger stipends might also lead to increased enrollment, Stamp said. Drawing more and more talented students will also help to boost the University’s reputation nationally. Additional funding from individual departments may also help keep graduate stipends competitive, according to Stamp. That will require academic units to think in more entrepreneurial terms than they have in the past. Offering summer and winter session courses, increasing the number of self-supporting master’s students and seeking external grants and fellowships are among the ways departments might generate funds.

The stipend initiative calls for efforts to reduce students’ so-called “time to degree” as well, in part by focusing support on the initial years in a doctoral program. But there’s no one formula that will be applied, Swain emphasized.

“It’s a challenge,” she said, “to craft a policy that will take into account the many ways graduate support is thought about across the University.”

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