Graduate Studies

Graduate Council Graduate Studies Report 2004

Graduate Studies Report

Margo Wood, Associate Provost and Dean of Graduate Studies

September 23, 2004


This paper was prompted by the Transformation Plan proposal to substantially increase the proportion of graduate students in the USM student population. The content includes an effort to present an overview of the current status of graduate studies at USM and to suggest directions for strengthening as well as enlarging the scope of our graduate programs and all that accompanies them. The focus is general, looking at our collective graduate offerings and their administration and support. The substance of the paper draws upon many conversations stimulated by the president’s recently proposed plan Transforming USM, including a Graduate Council retreat (May 2004) and a retreat for professional staff of the Office of Graduate Studies (July 2004). The data relevant to the plan and the issues of meeting the goals pertaining to graduate studies at USM have also been shared and discussed with many individuals, most comprehensively with the department heads of the division of Enrollment Management (July, 2004). The focus of these discussions has been the particular goal of increasing the proportion of graduate students. Inevitably, however, such discussions also include the growth that has occurred in the last ten years and the need for attention to the support of the existing programs. There is a general agreement among the stakeholders that our successful programs – that is programs with excellent reputations and healthy enrollments- have managed to succeed in spite of scarce resources and stretched infrastructure in a university culture that primarily reflects the needs of undergraduate students, and that graduate studies has reached a limit beyond which expansion without new resources will inevitably result in erosion of quality for students, faculty, and staff. If quality of graduate studies is to be maintained or improved, and if further growth is to be encouraged, some changes are imperative. Particularly if the proportion of graduate to undergraduate enrollment is to increase, the allocation of resources and the USM culture must both reflect this shift.

Although the Chairs of the graduate programs (Graduate Council members) have begun a good faith effort to analyze various ways in which they could potentially increase both quality and enrollments, their plans are still in an early, formative stage; progress will depend greatly on program support. Their willingness to engage in this effort reflects their guarded optimism that graduate enrollments, of both matriculated and non-matriculated students, can possibly be increased through strategic actions; however, they have not yet brought their ideas before their respective faculties for discussion. This paper will concentrate more on the collective thoughts and analyses of those who are most involved with administration and management of graduate studies: the Dean of Graduate Studies and the professional staff of Graduate Admissions, with input from the Graduate Council.

Status of Graduate Studies

We currently have 2,365 graduate and law students* (21.5% of USM enrollment) in 26 degree-granting programs. The current complement of graduate programs includes one doctoral program (a second has been approved), 24 master’s programs, 17 graduate certificate programs, and 6 certificate of advanced graduate study (beyond the master’s) programs. The Office of Graduate Studies (OGS) provides centralized administration for all of the degree granting programs. The main OGS office is on the Portland campus with a satellite graduate admissions office serving programs on the Gorham campus. The Law program is separately administered and is not included in the breakdown of graduate programs above. (For the organizational structure of OGS, click here)

* This figure represents "head count" including matriculated and non-matriculated students, and is based on the Registrar’s census data from October, 2003.

The history of the evolution and expansion of graduate studies at USM is characterized by a gradual accumulation of locally developed programs followed by slowly increasing centralization of policy and procedures in the Office of Graduate Studies. Graduate Studies at USM has evolved over the last 30 years from primarily professional development for practicing teachers and later for other professionals (Nursing, School Counseling) to a full range of programs in many intellectual disciplines. In a parallel course, leadership of graduate studies has evolved from a half time Associate Provost (a willing faculty member with a decreased teaching load) to an Associate Provost/Dean of Graduate Studies on a twelve month administrative appointment. In many respects there has already been a significant "transformation" of the graduate component of USM; however the shifts and growth that have taken place are not universally recognized by the USM community, nor have the infrastructure and culture adequately kept pace with changes in the area of Graduate Studies.

If we intend to seriously engage in an effort to strengthen graduate education at USM and enlarge its scope, we must attend first to addressing each of the broad areas of recruitment, infrastructure, and a culture that appeals to graduate students and serves them well. If the shift in proportion of undergraduate to graduate students is combined with a corresponding shift in resource allocations and in culture, the likelihood of successfully achieving health and growth will be far greater.

Challenges: Recruitment

USM has managed to attract, retain and award degrees to many outstanding graduate students. Nevertheless, as we look to the future we have two interrelated resource problems that work against us in recruiting an increasingly diverse, high quality graduate student body.

First, neither OGS nor the programs themselves have adequate resources to market our programs. (See "operating budget," page 4.) Given the current advertising, printing and travel budgets for OGS, it is difficult to conceive of a recruitment plan that goes beyond day trips, open houses, and improvement of websites.

Even if we succeed in stimulating interest among an increased number of qualified potential applicants, we still face a major disadvantage in actually "capturing" them since the prospects for financial support at USM are low compared to other institutions. Both the amount and the management of graduate student support have become steadily more problematic for programs and for OGS. Over the past five years USM has instituted a minimum rate of pay and has gradually and steadily increased the amount of support available to our graduate students. Nevertheless, our rates of support are far from competitive with other universities in the area. At USM the minimum compensation for a full assistantship (20 hours per week for the academic year) is currently $8,500. Since there are no automatic tuition waivers accompanying assistantships, recipients may choose to pay tuition from their award, thus reducing their stipend. For example, if a student chooses to apply their award toward 18 credits of tuition, she will receive $4,378 in stipend. At UNH, by comparison, a 20 hour graduate assistant gets a minimum of$12,875 stipend in addition to an 18 credit tuition waiver. At UM the minimum stipend for such a graduate assistant is $9,110 in addition to an 18 credit tuition waiver and half of his health insurance. As of 2004, we have been allotted $50,000 a year for graduate recruitment tuition waivers, making it possible to offer waivers (that programs may combine with assistantships) to 8 to 10 students per year. This is certainly a step in the right direction, but we are still able to fund only a very few students at a level that is anywhere near competitive. Several of our programs combine their graduate assistant allocation funds to offer packages far beyond our institutional minimum. In this way they are able to attract and fund a few outstanding students; the downside to this practice is of course that fewer students can be funded. While recruitment and financial support are more closely related for some programs and some student sub-groups than others, clearly we cannot grow substantially as a graduate institution unless both are addressed.

Challenges: Infrastructure

Since growth in Graduate Studies at USM has taken place without adopting a traditional graduate school structure, the Office of Graduate Studies has accumulated a mix of functions and responsibilities that one would be unlikely to find in most graduate schools. These include the usual (and extensive) functions relating to graduate admissions for all programs, oversight of student support opportunities and general guidance, oversight of policy development and implementation, and minimal outreach and recruitment efforts. However, the staff of our OGS also perform the following services which are not usual: Human Resource and Billing functions for all (175) graduate assistants, publication functions (as well as funding) for the Graduate Catalog, and oversight of all (24) Faculty Research Grant budgets. This varied work is accomplished by six staff members (5 1/3 positions) between the two OGS offices, and is overseen by the AP/Dean of Graduate Studies. Because of the addition of new programs and the multiple functions assumed by OGS, the office is understaffed, as well as minimally funded.

The operating budget for the Office of Graduate Studies is less than $20,000. This allocation is intended to fund the Portland and Gorham Admissions Offices as well as the expenses of the Dean of Graduate Studies. One quarter of this budget ($5,400) is devoted to production of the Graduate catalog. Other budget lines that are particularly problematic include:

  • $260 for advertising
  • $1,150 for travel (for 6 admissions staff members and the dean).

Graduate Assistantships are managed and overseen by OGS. The institution’s legacy-driven practice of mixing tuition payment and stipends is unwieldy, labor-intensive, and not in the best interests of students. (See Challenges: Recruitment, page 3.)

Challenges: USM Culture

USM has traditionally embraced the culture of an undergraduate institution with some graduate programs attached. Consequently, faculty and students involved in graduate education at USM frequently note the lack of "graduate culture" here.

Our student service and business offices are closed during the hours that graduate students frequent the campuses, and many staff members are unaware of graduate student needs, and of how those differ significantly from those of undergraduates. In short, graduate students as a group are all too often overlooked at USM. As individuals, they are frequently misinformed when seeking help from university offices.

There is no graduate student representation or participation on the USM Student Senate, nor is there any kind of a USM graduate student association or Council. A few programs have student organizations, but again, they are supported locally if at all.

There are no funds to support student travel (to present at conferences, for example) or other opportunities for professional growth.

There are few spaces dedicated to the use of graduate students and few work stations for graduate assistants. Those that do exist have been carved out by individual programs from their own resources.

Strengthening Graduate Studies at USM

In the 2004 edition of Organization and Administration of Graduate Education, a publication of the Council of Graduate Schools, President Debra Stewart makes the following statement:

By recognizing that graduate education coexists, in almost all cases, with undergraduate and professional education, it [the document] describes a strong and central graduate school as one that interacts and counsels wisely across the institution" (p. v).

To achieve what Stewart describes, the graduate school or its counterpart must lead in clearly defining the differences between graduate and undergraduate education, and must work to ensure that the two entities support one another. There must be sufficient resources to maximize the quality of the graduate endeavor, and there must be a structure that makes it possible for Graduate Studies to "interact and counsel wisely across the institution." Some needed shifts in the perceptions and realities of roles include the following:

In describing the role of the graduate dean, the CGS authors say,

It is the graduate dean who articulates the idea of… an organic, interdependent whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. In articulating this vision, the graduate dean makes a vital contribution to the work of the academic vice president, the president, and the entire leadership team (p. 6).

The role of the Associate Provost/Dean of Graduate Studies at USM must be perceived in this way. This means the dean should participate in all university and college level decisions that involve or affect graduate programs and/or students. Without this kind of inclusion and mutual cooperation, the Office of Graduate Studies and sometimes the Graduate Council are forced into reactionary decision-making that often contributes to deterioration of student service and faculty morale.

The function of OGS within the university should be revisited. We need for the OGS staff to be fully focused on graduate studies. Those functions that are not directly related to graduate admissions, graduate studies, and graduate student affairs could be moved to other more appropriate departments. In its redefined role, OGS must have an adequate operating budget and staffing to manage graduate affairs effectively and to provide consistent, excellent student service. Future recruitment of graduate students, smooth admissions processes, and information management will depend on this. Possibilities for sharing personnel with Undergraduate Admissions should be revisited, as well as other means of increasing staff. We must invest in coordinating and supporting marketing efforts of programs, providing career advising, and giving greater support to student scholarship endeavors.

We need to launch a serious effort to include the graduate students themselves in creating a graduate culture at USM within programs (singly and collectively), and within the university as a whole. When there were few programs and all graduate students were part-time commuting students, there was little interest among them in developing a collective voice. Now, however, we have a great variety of programs, more full-time and out-of-state students, and a far more diverse profile. Graduate students’ participation in matters of concern to them would add a needed dimension to the governance of graduate studies at USM. This is one of many endeavors that might be undertaken to enfranchise graduate students as more valued citizens at USM.

These major shifts and changes can only be reached through more specific, representative actions. Following the previously used classification of challenge areas (recruitment, infrastructure, and culture), representative recommendations follow.


Actions: Recruitment

Increase student financial support enough to attract and hold highly qualified students and to enable Maine students in need of financial aid to enter and complete programs, thus facilitating their ultimate contributions to the vitality and progress of the state of Maine. This year USM awarded $50,000 worth of tuition waivers, for the first time, to 9 incoming graduate students with outstanding qualifications. Several of them would not have come to USM without these waivers and the accompanying graduate assistantships awarded them by OGS via their programs. In order to be competitive with other institutions, even within Maine, we need the capacity to award at least three times this many "recruitment" tuition waivers. We also need to raise our minimum rate for graduate assistantships significantly, and we need to separate tuition from stipends as other universities do.

Invest in the marketing budget of OGS, whose staff could coordinate and support program efforts as well as market USM graduate offerings as a whole.

Reduce out-of-state tuition for graduate students to attract more out-of-state students. Possibly there could be one invariant tuition rate for all graduate students. There is considerable anecdotal evidence that strong out-of-state candidates for our programs decide to attend elsewhere due to our combination of high tuition and insufficient student support. OGS staff conducted an analysis of the out-of-state students in our graduate programs over the past three years and discovered that the majority of them do not actually pay the higher tuition, so it appears that USM is not gaining revenues by adhering to the differential rate. (See Addendum #1.)

Consider charging students according to their status rather than according to the level of the courses they take. This is a common practice at other universities. It encourages students to enroll in overlap (3-2) programs. Undergraduate students taking 500 level courses (which in one program are required for the undergraduate major) are not penalized in terms of tuition or financial aid. Biology professor Chris Maher conducted an analysis of the fiscal implications of this change that showed an actual gain in USM revenues based on the numbers of USM students crossing levels in their coursework in 2004. (See Addendum #2.)

Actions: Infrastructure Restructuring and Support

Increase staff coverage in OGS. We must figure out a way to have full time staff available to answer the phone and to talk with students who walk in. In the Portland office, particularly, this function is too often left to work study students who change periodically, necessitating a great deal of time and effort in training. Because of the lack of a full time AA, the Portland office relies too heavily on the least knowledgeable staff as front line communicators.

Remove the production of the Graduate Catalog from the OGS budget. Possibly the printing of the catalog could be taken over by publications. However, the recommended alternative is to eliminate the print catalog and produce it and maintain archives only on line, as many other universities do. This would free up $5,400 to be used for producing other more appropriate marketing materials. (Due to the lack of program or OGS brochures containing pertinent information for marketing to prospective students, our catalog is still being used inappropriately as a marketing tool. This is wasteful.)

Remove the responsibility for managing Faculty Senate Research award accounts from the OGS. One of our problems is that OGS absorbs some HR functions (everything pertaining to the pay of graduate assistants), some publication functions (extensive editing of the graduate catalog) and some budget management that is unrelated to graduate studies (oversight of FSR budgets). The time of the Assistant Director of Graduate Admissions is increasingly eaten up by these functions, greatly reducing the amount of time he can devote to talking with prospective students. That important function is more and more being handled by the AA, which is not best practice.

Restructure the management of graduate assistantships and other graduate student support. We currently are mired in an archaic, extremely labor-intensive system of management of graduate assistantships in which students may opt to apply their award to tuition (with a minimal stipend left over) or to receive it all as a stipend. The book-keeping associated with this is complicated, time-consuming, and rife with opportunities for error. We should award tuition waivers, scholarships, and assistantship stipends separately after deciding on the best mechanism for accomplishing and managing this.

Require a yearly (simple) application with a fee of $20-25 for non-matriculated students who want to register for graduate courses. This would flow through the OGS and would enable tracking of such students, as well as proof that they have completed undergraduate degrees. We could better serve them and advise them about timing of matriculation and appropriate coursework. While this action would require extra labor in OGS, costs could be covered by the revenue generated. This system is also common practice at other universities; USM is unique in its completely open enrollment policy for non-matriculated graduate students. While such a policy may be entirely appropriate for undergraduate students, a different process is needed for graduate students.

Actions: Strengthening of Graduate Culture

Arrange for offices used by graduate students to remain open at least some evenings between 4 and 7 p.m. Promote awareness of the scheduling needs of graduate students.

Work with all student service departments to increase awareness of the different needs of graduate students, and encourage appropriate responses to these needs. Suggest use of the question, " Are you a graduate or an undergraduate student?" by all front line student contact people, who will learn to tailor their responses to the student’s status.

Institute a graduate student activities fee to support appropriate events and activities as well as to support the formation and work of graduate student associations or councils (both program specific and university wide). Revenues could also be used to support professional activities of graduate students.

Carve out some special spaces for graduate students in common buildings such as the library and the Campus Center. Create comfortable workspaces on all campuses for graduate assistants to use. 

Some Traditions that Work Against Us

 Even when they have a recognized negative impact, deep-rooted traditions are difficult to confront and change. As part of the effort to strengthen Graduate Studies, however, it behooves us to at least recognize these factors and the effects they are having, so that we may work toward change whenever possible.

Graduate course schedules and structures are increasingly inconvenient for a significant number of our students. The majority of our graduate classes meet at 4 or 4:10 p.m.; a much smaller number meet at 7 p.m. This schedule probably originated when most graduate students were teachers who could reasonably reach campus by 4 o’ clock. This hour is far too early, however, for students with other kinds of full-time jobs. We should explore the possibility of having some classes that begin at 5 or 5:30. We would also do well to revisit the requirement that weekly classes must have 2 ½ hours of contact time. This is the rule for undergraduate classes. Is it also the most reasonable for graduate classes? If the traditional scheduling constraints could be loosened, we could explore new options.

Late admissions deadlines for some of the graduate programs disadvantage students in the financial aid arena. These deadlines are not easily moveable for two reasons. First, the small OGS staff does not have the capacity to handle a uniform deadline, at least as currently structured. Second, program faculty make admission decisions; OGS has only marginal control over the timing and pace of the process. Nevertheless, this problem must be solved for the sake of better student service.

Late publication of the Graduate Catalog is problematic. Priority is given to the undergraduate catalog; the production of the graduate catalog must traditionally be postponed until the undergraduate catalog has gone to press. This means that the considerable work of collating program materials, editing, and working with publications and printing coincides in spring with the admissions season, the busiest time of the year for OGS. Other options for timing as well as format of the catalog must be explored.

New Offerings: a Large and Persistent Dilemma

It is clear that for many programs (especially those with professional accreditation guidelines) the loss or freezing of faculty lines often translates into reduction of number of students who can be accepted to a program. This is the opposite effect of what the Transformation Plan calls for. The financial climate is currently such that the Graduate Council has recommended a moratorium on start-up of any new programs until such time as existing programs are more adequately supported. Nevertheless, it is through new ideas and new graduate offerings that our vitality and responsiveness as an institution are maintained. When we reach the point where new programming may reasonably be supported, the recommendation is that new endeavors grow out of existing areas of strength and high demand. It would make most sense to look at variations or integrations of existing program areas, first and foremost. Investments of both financial resources and faculty lines will be limited in the near future. For this reason they must be chosen with more care than ever before. An important decision remains to be made: Will the USM administration choose to expend the scarce resources that do become available to enable further growth in strong, high-demand programs, or will the choice be to invest in and strengthen programs with faltering enrollments and/or smaller audiences? While the USM Plan of 2001 encourages Graduate Studies to develop both high demand programs and smaller programs in areas of excellence, it is increasingly apparent that USM must develop priorities and find a definite direction in terms of this large and persistent dilemma.


USM has developed a strong cadre of graduate programs, thanks to the energy, resourcefulness, and dedication of faculty and staff. Graduate Studies as a whole has, however, outgrown the resources, infrastructure, and management strategies that were adequate in the past. Moreover, the institution’s view of graduate studies has not kept pace with its increasing presence in the USM community. The recognition and reflection of the graduate presence in university culture and in the distribution of university resources can lead us to adequately meet the needs of graduate students and faculty. We have the potential for increased vitality and excellence in graduate programming; we must work in multiple ways to achieve it.