Prestigious graduate fellowship sees funding cut

GW will strip about $150,000 in funding from a prestigious graduate fellowship program next fall, cutting salaries and housing benefits, and leaving departments to sponsor their own fellows.

The Presidential Administrative Fellow program, which picks a handful of students to work in University offices while earning master’s degrees tuition-free, has previously been funded by the Dean of Students office. But next fall, sponsoring offices will foot the entirety of each student’s paycheck, amounting to about $25,000 a year – a one-third decrease from what fellows earned this year, in addition to their free graduate program. Students will be expected to work about 20 hours a week next year, down from about 30 hours a week in previous years.

The six incoming fellows as well as 13 current and graduating fellows penned letters to University President Steven Knapp last week, calling the change abrupt and unfair. Current fellows accused GW in the letter of luring students to the program “under false pretenses.”

Recently selected fellows wrote in their letter that they were under the assumption that they would earn $37,000 a year, which includes a housing stipend, on top of free tuition for their two years of graduate school when they signed contracts with the University.

The letter, obtained by The Hatchet, says they were confused and distressed after learning of the new compensation package and revamped work requirements after the fact. They wrote that the changes, which would cut down hours and eliminate a summer work period, will “substantially change our fellowship experiences.”

Senior Associate Provost and Dean of Student Affairs Peter Konwerski defended the new structure, adding that administrators “carefully reviewed the award package to ensure consistency with other graduate awards,” as a way to make sure the graduate aid budget is “equitable and broadly distributed.”

He said next year’s compensation is still “very desirable,” and said the University is “committed to continuing to provide competitive graduate aid packages.”

Konwerski said the program’s leadership told the incoming fellows that their compensation would change in their acceptance letters in January, and said that the current fellows heard news about the changes “this winter and again later this spring.”

But he said GW’s effort to communicate the program’s new benefits and expectations could have been clearer.

“In hindsight, I have acknowledged to the PAFs that more could have been undertaken to be more proactive in bringing the specific details of these changes to their attention earlier,” Konwerski said. He said officials are preparing a letter in response, and would continue conversations with the fellows.

Konwerski added that limiting the hours will make sure fellows can focus on academics and other extracurricular activities like internships, research opportunities and service.

The fellows argued that with fewer perks, the program, which attracted about 70 applicants this year by its October deadline, would lose students who might choose to work and study elsewhere in future years. They also argued that forcing departments to cough up an hourly rate of $24 to pay the graduate student fellows would hugely deter offices from taking on students.

“This provides no incentive for departments to host fellows, as they could spend much less to hire a part-time employee or a work-study student,” according to the current fellows’ letter.

Konwerski said sponsoring departments previously paid for “a significant portion” of the fellows’ compensation, but said he could not provide how much departments would pay because he said it depends on students’ work schedules.

The current fellows also said they were not involved in the decision-making process and that “attempts to address these concerns with the PAF program leadership have stalled and that little effort is being made to be transparent or act in the best interest of the fellowship.”

The changes stem from a 2010 report from fellows who recommended that the University limit the workload to 20 hours a week and make sure there is an increased academic focus in the program. But the fellows then had also recommended that the decreased hours not affect their stipends so that the students would not have to work part-time elsewhere or take out loans to offset the costs of living.

Current fellows also pointed out that incoming students will have to pay out-of-pocket for rent in August, as they have to be on campus by the middle of the month but will not get their first check until September.

A fellow currently in the program, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the students sign a confidentially agreement, said that while next year’s fellows were notified in their acceptance letters, there is a lot of confusion because more changes have been made since they were originally notified.

“We felt the changes could have been more effectively communicated to both the incoming PAFs and our class. Changes are still being made, and not all of the changes were determined in January when the new cohort was accepted,” the fellow said.

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