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Knuth updates GPSA on strategic progress and student debt

Barbara Knuth

Barbara Knuth, senior vice provost and dean of the Graduate School, updated the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly (GPSA) Oct. 24 on progress of the GPSA’s Graduate and Professional Community Initiative (GPCI), announced an update to federal policy affecting health insurance for students with assistantships, and shared data about graduate student debt.

Created by the GPSA as the Graduate Community Initiative in 2008 and updated in 2013, the GPCI provides a framework for strategic actions to address issues related to graduate and professional student life at Cornell.

“The GPSA has been an effective advocate for the graduate and professional student community and one whose input we frequently seek for issues ranging from stipend increases and graduate and professional student housing to the climate for graduate students at Cornell,” Knuth said.

“When the GPSA submitted the Graduate and Professional Community Initiative to improve graduate student and professional student life, Cornell listened. We partnered with the GPSA to create a multi-pronged effort to address student concerns,” she continued.

A document summarizing accomplishments and progress on the strategic plan was distributed to GPSA members in advance of the meeting.

The Graduate School, in partnership with Student and Campus Life, established working groups around thematic areas in the GPCI, including students and staff from units across campus to share ideas and resources, and identify and prioritize actions.

“For example, by leveraging existing resources across the greater Cornell community, we were able to open workshops for spouses and partners and families on topics ranging from local job searches to breastfeeding resources,” Knuth said.

The thematic areas and their signature accomplishments include:

  • student center: renovating the Big Red Barn, addressing BRB dining options;
  • sense of community: writing programs and academic and social events across disciplines;
  • family services: child care grant increases, events for students with families, partner/spouse employment workshops;
  • career resources: advising, alumni networking, Pathways to Success professional development programs and others;
  • mental health and well-being: expanded workshops and counseling programs, personal financial education;
  • diversity and international students: academic, professional and career support, and English Language Support Office;
  • housing: Maplewood redevelopment; and
  • transportation: expanded parking options.

“The list of accomplishments arising from the GPCI is impressive and far-reaching, with some, like our writing programs, winning awards for innovation,” Knuth said. “The graduate student experience has been transformed in large and small ways by the many initiatives. We look forward to working with GPSA on the next GPCI, to be developed next year.”

Knuth also reported an update to national policy affecting health insurance for some students.

“We’ve been working very hard on a provision of the Affordable Care Act that several federal agencies – Treasury, Health and Human Services, and Labor – have been interpreting as not allowing universities to provide student health insurance as part of an assistantship award package.”

In her role as chair (and now past chair) of the board of directors of the Council of Graduate Schools, she said, “I have been actively working on this issue with the agencies, with higher education associations and with Cornell’s government affairs teams. … On Friday last week, the agencies issued updated guidance that will enable universities to keep providing student health insurance to graduate students on assistantships” while they continue to work out further refinements to the guidance.

In addition, this fall, as a result of a provision of the Affordable Care Act, Cornell lowered health insurance rates considerably for dependents, equalizing single-person rates for student, spouse/partner, and one child.

Knuth also presented statistics on graduate student debt at Cornell. According to figures supplied at the meeting, only about 4 percent, or 224, of 5,265 enrolled Graduate School students incurred debt through direct federal loans last year. Among graduating research degree students in 2016, less than 5 percent graduated with any educational debt incurred during their Cornell graduate studies. For the 4 percent of doctoral students who graduated in 2016 with educational debt from their doctoral program, the median debt was $15,612.

“These numbers reflect Cornell’s commitment to providing competitive assistantship and fellowship stipends and providing a wide range of support programs to help graduate students complete their degrees in a timely fashion,” Knuth said.

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