Iowa graduate students teaching less

But educators, students say positions have big impact on universities

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March 28, 2014 | 2:34 pm

IOWA CITY — The undergraduate student credit hours taught by graduate students at the University of Iowa and Iowa State University declined from 2006 to 2010, a decrease some officials and graduate student leaders attribute to the schools using more nontenured faculty.

The biennial report on faculty activities submitted to the state Board of Regents every two years shows that 18.6 percent of all undergraduate credit hours at the UI were taught by graduate assistants in 2010, and 11.8 percent at ISU.

In the 2006 report, the level was 21.8 percent at the UI and 15.5 percent at ISU; it declined from 2006 to 2008 and from 2008 to 2010 at both universities.

That likely stems from the budget cuts the universities faced in recent years, as more adjuncts and instructors were used as a “short-term solution” by departments, ISU Graduate College Dean Dave Holger said.

“That decline is not a sign of something that’s going to continue,” he said. “It’s probably an impact in the short term that you won’t see in the long term.”

Bigger impact

Some UI graduate student leaders also argue that report underrepresents the actual impact of graduate teaching assistants. Leaders of the union that represents about 2,500 UI graduate teaching and research assistants — the Campaign to Organize Graduate Students, or COGS — believe the biennial report on teaching activity doesn’t fully portray the “contact hours” graduate assistants have with undergraduates in classes, labs and discussion sessions.

COGS did a study last summer, using spring 2012 courses, to try and measure total contact hours with undergraduates, President Jason Whisler said. Graduate assistants often lead smaller discussion sessions or labs several times a week that are tied to a large lecture class taught by a faculty member, for example.

The study attempted to measure the hours outside large lecture classes that graduate students teach or work with undergraduates, Whisler said. According to the COGS study, more than 65 percent of undergraduate contact hours were with graduate assistants.

“That paints a very different picture,” said Whisler, a 32-year-old doctoral student in history.

John Keller, UI Graduate College dean, understands that COGS leaders argue they are even more integral to the undergraduate teaching mission than the biennial report numbers indicate. He said it’s a hard thing to measure, given the variability in graduate and professional students’ work across departments.

“They do in fact provide considerable effort toward the mission of the university in terms of teaching, research and service while ‘working’ in these roles,” Keller said via email. “A key point that I try to relay to the students each contract negotiation period is the fact that despite being employees, these folks are students first, and in fact only have the position by virtue of their student status.”

Staffing changes

The financial impact of the work done by graduate and professional students is not something the universities measure, officials said. However, data from November that the UI reported to the Association of American Universities shows the UI’s nearly 3,000 research and teaching assistants provided the equivalent of nearly 1,200 full-time positions.

At the UI, especially, graduate and professional students are a large population — 30 percent of total enrollment. Of the 5,500 graduate students enrolled this spring, more than half of them — 2,903 — are teaching and research assistants. Professional students in programs like medicine and pharmacy also have obligations as part of their education, such as seeing patients, but those hours aren’t reflected in the biennial report, which looks only at teaching assistants.

At ISU, graduate and professional students are about 18 percent of total enrollment. The University of Northern Iowa’s enrollment this year was 13 percent graduate students, though UNI’s level of undergraduate credit hours taught by graduate assistants is much lower — less than 1 percent in 2008 and 2010.

The UI Graduate Student Senate marks April as Graduate Student Appreciation Month, to bring attention to the work done by graduate students across campus, GSS President Kimberly Hoppe said. On the flip side, teaching and research assistants also benefit via a financial stipend, a tuition scholarship and insurance, she said.

“Much of the cutting edge research completed at the university is being completed by graduate students,” said Hoppe, 27, a doctoral student in occupational and environmental health. “I feel fortunate that I am a graduate research assistant, and am very grateful for the position I have. Many students do not have an assistantship, and the financial burden on them can be huge.”

Financial support

The financial package of UI graduate assistants ranks second among Big Ten schools, said Josh Pederson, COGS vice president. That helps attract strong candidates, the 28-year-old doctoral student in communication studies said.

“When you treat graduate students well, you’re likely to attract much better potential graduate students to your university,” he said.

Another student leader, Michael Appel, president of the UI Executive Council of Graduate & Professional Students, made a presentation Thursday to the state Board of Regents about the importance of graduate and professional students to the state. Appel, 24, a third-year law student, said he thinks it's a critical time for graduate education, as there is ongoing discussion about funding for programs.

He told the regents that three issues - degree completion, affordability and opportunity - are key for graduate and professional students. He suggested regents and state leaders have a discussion about incentives for timely degree completion and loan forgiveness for students who take jobs in certain areas in Iowa. He also suggested a "pipeline" program in subjects like law, medicine and pharmacy, where new graduates could find jobs when older Iowans are retiring in those fields around the state.

Talking about the hours those students contribute on campus and through volunteer efforts around the state "is the best way to show that cutting funding to graduate and professional programs is not only detrimental to the students but detrimental to the state," Appel told The Gazette.

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