The hidden cost of Graduate School at Duke

Matthew, a sixth-year Ph.D. candidate at Duke, has to cobble together odd jobs in order to pay the bills. As an international student, he is prohibited from working outside the university, but he is also restricted—per Graduate School policy—to 20 hours a week within it. He received a contract to teach two courses during the 2015-2016 academic year, with pay totaling $12,000, and he has been fortunate enough to find a TA position in his department, a part-time internship and occasional tutoring opportunities. With so many scattered responsibilities, it is no wonder that Matthew has found it impossible to focus on finishing his dissertation. What may surprise readers, however, is that a large portion of his financial burden comes from Duke itself, in the form of a $6,580 continuation fee.

When admitted to one of Duke's prestigious Ph.D. programs, prospective students like Matthew receive a letter outlining the University’s offer of financial support, a bundle that includes a tuition scholarship, health insurance coverage and a competitive fellowship stipend. According to the letter, the Graduate School "will ensure that you are supported at least through your fifth year of study, provided that you remain in good academic standing and are making satisfactory progress toward your degree." From this, prospective doctoral students will deduce that funding is not guaranteed beyond their fifth year of study, but they won’t find any indication that, come sixth year, they will be required to pay thousands of dollars annually to finish their degree.

Many students will continue into their seventh year. National Science Foundation data show that, in 2013, the median time to degree for Ph.D. recipients was 9.2 years in the humanities and 7.7 in the social sciences. On top of continuation fees, graduate students beyond the sixth year will face a charge of $2,163 to keep their health insurance, bringing the total amount owed to over $8,700. And while hefty charges might seem like a powerful incentive to graduate as quickly as possible, the resulting need to take on ever more work distracts students from their own research and delays completion, sometimes indefinitely.

It is unclear why continuation fees are assessed; most sixth- and seventh-year students use few university resources besides the library, which offers free borrowing privileges to all Duke alumni and access to anyone else for $50 a year. The Graduate School has so far failed to answer repeated requests for clarification about what resources and services these fees are intended to cover.

Other top-tier universities assess continuation fees, too, yet a survey of peer institutions situates Duke as an outlier. To take a sampling, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Virginia charge approximately $4,500, Princeton $3,000, Columbia $2,000, NYU and Yale $1,000 and Harvard as little as $300. Despite the range, these figures are all significantly lower than what Duke charges its doctoral students. Other universities, such as Stanford, Cornell and the University of Michigan, impose continuation fees that are nominally higher than Duke’s but are absorbed by a student’s home department in exchange for service as a teaching assistant.

At Duke, where continuation fees are unavoidable, upper-level graduate students confront an intimidating bill before even beginning to consider how to pay the basic living expenses of housing, utilities and food. The meager stipends that many students receive for work as instructors or teaching assistants barely allow them to recoup the cost of fees, let alone live comfortably. As a result, they must increase their teaching load, apply for loans, seek additional forms of employment or do some combination of the above. The situation is even more dire for international students like Matthew, who can’t take out student loans in the U.S., and students from disadvantaged backgrounds who have no recourse to financial support from their families. Continuation fees raise the specter of indebtedness amid a dismal job market for doctoral graduates and undermine Duke’s status as an outstanding institution for graduate education.

Matthew’s case—by no means unique—illustrates the harm continuation fees cause graduate students. But the fees also do a serious disservice to Duke’s undergraduate population; when graduate students are forced to divide their energy among research, outside jobs and teaching, the students in their classes lose out. In short, continuation fees are bad for graduate students, bad for undergraduates and bad for Duke.

Over the past year, graduate students from across affected disciplines have united to form a Committee on Continuation Fees. Last fall, shortly after the Committee’s initial meetings, Duke's Graduate and Professional Student Council (GPSC) passed a resolution urging the Duke Administration to reduce or eliminate continuation fees for upper-year doctoral students. The overwhelming support this resolution garnered in a body that represents nine graduate and professional schools—eight of which are not subject to these fees—indicates just how evident it is that Duke’s comparatively severe continuation fees endanger its competitiveness and its reputation as a producer of talented academics.

For now, the fees remain. As the fall semester comes to an end, hundreds of prospective students will submit applications to graduate programs at Duke. Some of these bright and eager young scholars will receive a letter of acceptance and notification that they have been awarded a competitive financial aid package. Most, however, will be unaware of the hidden costs. At the very least, we believe these students should be made aware of the continuation fees imposed at Duke so that they have complete information when making a decision about where to enroll. But we also hope this column will encourage the administration to come together with students and faculty with a shared commitment to eliminating or reducing these burdensome fees for the benefit of all.

Brendan Higgins is a graduate student in the Department of English and a member of the Duke Committee on Continuation Fees.


Share and discuss “The hidden cost of Graduate School at Duke” on social media.