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Unjust continuation fees remain problematic

Dean McClain's response to our editorial on the hidden costs of graduate school at Duke represents a productive start to a dialogue that’s long overdue. We appreciate this first step and hope that our own response will help us move toward a shared goal of eliminating unmanageable debt for Duke doctoral students.

We have argued that continuation fees should be eliminated. Dean McClain suggests, instead, that the term should be eliminated—to be replaced by the word "tuition." Tuition is most commonly understood as a charge for the service of teaching or instruction. But while upper-level doctoral students often provide this service, they do not typically enroll in coursework. Therefore, the term “tuition” really doesn’t allow us to appropriately address the problem at hand, and a major question remains. What costs or services are these fees intended to cover?

Although Dean McClain states that Duke benchmarks its fees against peer institutions, our own research has uncovered significant discrepancies between Duke's numbers and those we have established by contacting deans of finance at other universities. Furthermore, we’re concerned that a specified fee amount tells us very little—if anything—about what graduate students are actually required to spend. At many institutions, continuation fees are covered for all students, so that the "paper" number is merely nominal. At others, fees are waived for students providing services such as teaching or instructional support, for off-campus or non-resident students and/or for those making adequate progress towards degree completion. The true benchmark is thus not the specified continuation fee, but how much (and how many) students actually pay.

In this regard, we are pleased that the Graduate School has now publicized the number of doctoral students paying fees out of pocket, as this is new information provided in accordance with repeated requests. We would, however, like to note a tension in Dean McClain's framing of this issue. On one hand, the Dean suggests that the number of students paying these fees (roughly 20 percent of upper-level graduate students) is modest. On the other, in an e-mail sent to graduate students last week, she indicated that covering these fees would be so financially difficult for the Graduate School that it "would have reduced our ability to maintain the level of the guaranteed financial package that all PhD students receive during their first five years." The Dean thus implies that indebted graduate students are a necessary aspect of the Graduate School’s funding model. But it is inappropriate to suggest that upper-level graduate students are responsible for funding their lower-level peers. The funding of doctoral students is the responsibility of the Graduate School, not individual students.

Dean McClain further suggests that continuation fees "create an incentive" for graduate students to quickly complete their degrees. The imputation that students will only work hard if threatened with onerous debt is insulting to the talents and efforts of Duke's graduate community. As we have repeatedly argued, the effect of these fees is exactly the opposite—delaying time to degree and negatively impacting bright young scholars at the start of their careers. Indeed, the lack of a clear, consistent policy at the Graduate School level leaves upper-year doctoral students financially vulnerable, creates enormous discrepancies between departments and disciplines and disproportionately hurts those members of our community who need our help the most—especially international, minority and underprivileged students.

We believe that no graduate student should be burdened by unnecessary debt as they work to complete their degree in a timely fashion, and we’re ready to work together with the Graduate School to develop solutions to the problems that exist. Other institutions have already displayed leadership in this area. Brown University's dissertation completion proposal represents just one example of such a policy. Another option would be to follow Yale's lead and fully fund all graduate students who need a sixth year to finish their work.

Despite documented difficulties reaching the Graduate School in the past, we are pleased that the Dean has now indicated a desire to meet with us. Given that this is an issue which impacts all doctoral students, we would like to invite Dean McClain to a public Town Hall Forum where students from across disciplines can voice their questions, comments and concerns. The Committee on Continuation Fees will be happy to facilitate this discussion, and we’re ready to work together in the service of a solution to the very real and serious problem of continuation fees at Duke.

Bennett Carpenter, Shahrazad Shareef, Mimi Luse, Laura Maure Cecchini and Justin Mitchell are graduate students writing on behalf of the Duke Committee on Continuation Fees, a group of doctoral students from across affected disciplines who have come together to address fees.

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