The Morphing of Funding for Graduate Students

By: Graduate Studies on

One day, when a couple of Graduate Studies staff were working on a presentation for a conference, they were joking around with a title and hit on … “If You Fund Them, They Will Come.” Everyone had a good laugh, but then realized that the message was potent, and very relevant to many colleges and universities when it comes to recruiting graduate students. It is true of UCF, too. Here is a brief history of how far we have come with funding graduate students.

As soon as UCF began enrolling graduate students, it also began funding them. Most of this early funding took place in the academic colleges and departments in the form of assistantships and college-funded fellowships. Sometimes tuition support was provided, too. During these early years, resident and nonresident tuition support was scarce and varied in availability, and the responsibility for managing it fluctuated. While the overall graduate student profile was mostly self-supported, part-time students, the university already felt the shortage of funding for its graduate students. As this student profile evolved, the number of graduate programs increased, and the university ventured into doctoral programs, the needs for funding graduate students evolved as well.

In the 1980s UCF began focusing on underrepresented graduate students. The first NSF fellow, Armando Vigil, enrolled in Optics; a while later, the second NSF fellow, Raymond Laureano, enrolled in Engineering. In the first McKnight Doctoral Fellowship competition in the state, the Florida Education Fund awarded two UCF doctoral students in Engineering, John DeCatrel and Ronald Williams. The UCF Foundation Minority Graduate Fellowship Program awarded fellowships to students. UCF also began participating in the statewide Summer Mentoring Graduate Fellowship Program, which helped new graduate students work with a faculty mentor on a summer research project. During this time other graduate fellowships emerged in the colleges and at the university level, tuition support became centralized in the Office of Graduate Studies, and an overall interest in coordinating resources and providing better funding was evident.

In 1993-1994 the university reorganized to create the combined Office of Research and Graduate Studies. Most fellowship funding was managed in spreadsheet files, and then later in an Access database. Assistantship funding was out there but seen only through special reports prepared by Computer Services. To manage in-state and out-of-state tuition waivers, Student Accounts and Graduate Studies created a database that was accessed through the Northwest Regional Data Center. This database helped share the responsibility for assigning tuition waivers across the university through a series of financial screens with green type on black background. It also provided amazing reports, printed on green-barred computer paper.

In the last ten years many changes have taken place in graduate funding at UCF. The 2008 regulation governing tuition remission for graduate assistantship and fellowship students paved the way for standardizing resident tuition remission across all funded students, charging $0.00 differential out-of-state fee for nonresidents, and providing health insurance. In addition, university fellowships were restructured to make them more attractive for high-quality doctoral applicants. Funding for underrepresented students enrolling in UCF graduate programs continued to expand, including more McKnight Doctoral Fellowship students and the creation of the UCF McNair and RAMP Graduate Fellowships. Most recently, the Graduate Dean’s Fellowships and Graduate Research Excellence Fellowships have joined the offerings. UCF graduate financial packages are now more competitive for recruiting the best applicants to our graduate programs. Today about 1,600 assistantship and 100 fellowship students receive financial packages, including stipend, full tuition, and health insurance.

Accompanying policy changes, UCF also underwent a huge makeover in financial processing and reporting. When UCF went to an enterprise system, a large modification was done to create a place to process tuition waivers, based on the database currently being used. This Waivers area is still in existence today and has experienced many modifications over the years. Other graduate funding also needed a place to work, so we gradually created more, including Fellowships Entry, Assistantships by Term, and Health Insurance, as well as many reports. To complement this university system development, our IT built an external system to send assistantship and fellowship offers to newly admitted graduate students. Following this development, we partnered with the Office of Research on the development of a Graduate Assistantship Agreement system that was used for a couple of years to generate and track PDF agreements. This was the first step in moving away from paper agreements. In the meantime, our IT integrated Offers and Agreements work into the Graduate Financials System used today. Assistantship agreements are now generated in a central database, approved through an online workflow, and the approved agreement PDF created for attachment to the ePAF form in the university system.  

While there is still much to do, UCF has clearly taken large steps toward strengthening funding for graduate students.

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