UW tries new approaches to attract graduate students

They’re as sought after as the finest high school athletes or top-notch prospects for a faculty post.

They get respectful telephone calls from department heads, offers of support and sometimes free plane tickets to Seattle.

They’re the best and the brightest: the graduate school applicants whom everyone wants. But the supply may be dwindling and, as in the case of faculty prospects, a “bidding war” can result. Far too often, the University of Washington battles with competitors who have a larger war chest.

There are some victories. One example is Wendy Thrash, a Ph.D. candidate in computer science who spurned offers from Stanford University, the University of Colorado and the University of California at Berkeley in favor of attending the UW.

Stanford is generous to its computer science graduate students, Thrash observes. “they pretty much guarantee support for four years … or, really, for as long as you’re making progress toward your degree.” But a well-timed trip to Seattle and “very competent recruiting” by the UW’s computer science department carried the day. “I met probably two-thirds of the faculty and a good number of students,” she recalls. “It was practically overkill.”

Thrash accepted a research assistantship plus a one-time-only, $3,000 bonus. “I needed the money to move up here,” she says. “It also made me feel special.”

Special students such as ‘Thrash may be declining in numbers. The U.S. Department of Education is projecting a 1.5 percent drop in graduate students this decade. Some UW officials are worried that the number of top-notch prospects will drop more substantially.

The UW currently receives about 10,000 applications for graduate school each year. Relatively few are as highly recruited as Thrash. For example, out of 300 applicants for the 1989-90 school year, the chemistry department identified only 20 as top prospects. The English department reserved 12 teaching assistantships for top prospects among its 150 applicants last year. Physics targeted about 60 of its 260 applicants for special recruiting attention.

“You can’t fill up your whole program with these students and I’m not even sure you’d want to,” says Gene L. Woodruff, dean of the Graduate School. “But having a few really top-notch graduate students produces some very beneficial effects.”

These include a general upgrading of academic standards and providing a powerful tool to recruit and retain good faculty. “If you talk to faculty pretty much all over campus, most of them will tell you that salaries are the most important variable,” he says. “I think second to that, and some people say even more important, is the quality of graduate students.”

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But many of the best and brightest slip away to other institutions. The English department, for example, had to make 22 offers before filling the 12 teaching assistantships it reserved for recruiting top prospects. Professor Norman Rose reports that chemistry netted four or five of its top 20 contenders, in most cases losing out to “big league” competitions such as Berkeley, Cal Tech, Stanford, Yale, Cornell, Harvard and M.I.T.

“We have to deal with the prestige of those institutions and we have stipends near the bottom,” comments Nancy Cooper, chemistry’s student services manager. “We try to do everything we can to sweeten the pot.”

“My impression is that we’re being outbid as far as what other schools can offer,” says Miceal Vaughan, associate professor and director of graduate studies in English. “When the offers are even, we win as often as we lose.”

The Graduate School will spend $924,000—distributed to the 68 graduate programs under its umbrella—to recruit the best and brightest for the 1990-91 school year. The recruiting program has been in place and growing for several years. The money is spent in different ways by individual departments. “We ask that they (the departments) spend it to recruit those students they wouldn’t otherwise get,” Woodruff explains.

Some departments spend part of their allotment to defray the cost of campus visits. “In some fields there is no hope of getting a good graduate student without giving him or her a chance to come and look first,” Woodruff points out. “The typical package is to pay their air fare and usually nothing else.”

One of those departments is chemistry, which partially financed campus visits for more than 70 applicants last year. The department recently conducted a survey of its graduate level applicants. Eighty percent of those responding said they would not consider enrolling at a school they hadn’t visited. The Shell Oil Foundation provides physics with $10,000 a year, a portion of which pays applicant travel expenses. Targeted students get a plane ticket and two nights in a hotel, says Professor Oscar Vilches, who coordinates graduate student recruiting for that department.

The English department, on the other hand, used last year’s $16,000 allotment to offer $1,000 “recruitment bonuses” to coveted students who chose to enroll, says Vaughan. Campus visits are less important as a recruiting tool in the humanities, he says. “We make active use of the telephone,” he explains, urging the applicant to “get back to us” before accepting another offer so the bonus can be adjusted, if necessary.

One of those bonus offers went to Steve Horne, a highly recruited Ph.D. applicant from the University of New Orleans. “First they offered me a fellowship and then—the most amazing thing—a few weeks later they offered me a bonus,” Horne says. Comparing it to football scholarships, he adds, “It’s the closest an English major comes to one of those football people they talk about.”

Unfortunately, Horne declined the UW’s offer in favor of Duke University. “Duke offered the best balance of location, money and people on the faculty I liked,” explains Horne, who also declined attractive offers from Yale and Johns Hopkins.

Vilches says the offer of summer employment to supplement a nine-month teaching assistantship is popular. “Extra money usually makes a difference, like any job,” observes Vilches.

On the overall recruiting environment, he adds, “This is like football but without the NCAA (regulations).”

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Woodruff considers fellowships the ideal form of support, and the most attractive recruiting offer, because they let the student concentrate on progress toward a degree, free of teaching or research responsibilities.

According to graduate school records, some 500 master’s degree and Ph.D. candidates receive work-free fellowships in amounts ranging from $500 to full support. In addition, there are federal and industry-sponsored traineeships, tuition-only awards and outside fellowships, but this support is harder to track.

Whatever the totals are, they fall far short of the competition which, Woodruff points out, is most often the “prestige” universities in California. “You’ll find free­standing fellowships of $15,000, $16,000, $18,000, plus tuition (at other institutions), but we just don’t have any of those,” says Woodruff, who estimates that Berkeley, USC and UCLA each have roughly 10 times the UW’s fellowship resources.

Some relief is on the way, however. The recently announced Campaign for Washington, with an overall goal of raising $250 million in private gifts, has targeted $34 million for endowed graduate student fellowships. An endowment is a fund established in perpetuity from which only the income is used.

Right now, all fellowships come from non-state sources: gifts from individuals and industry, for example. That may change, however, because the legislature is currently considering Gov. Booth Gardner $3-million request for the state’s Graduate Fellowship Trust Fund. Established in 1987, the private donor/state matching program has never received financing. If legislators support Gardner’s request, 120 potential fellowships will be divided up among the state’s six four-year institutions.

Once the fund is activated, institutions will be able to draw from it in increments of $25,000, provided that they match each increment with an additional $25,000 in private gifts.

“They (the legislators) are aware of this need and I think it’s going to happen this time,” says Representative Ken Jacobsen, a legislator from Seattle’s 46th district. “It’s a one-time cost. You put the money in an endowment and it sits there and you work out of the interest.

“Where else can the state of Washington put in a buck and get in an extra buck?” asks Jacobsen, who strongly supports the program. “We’re doubling our money and likewise for the private donors, they are doubling their money.” Under Gardner’s proposal, the UW would be eligible for 84 fellowships.

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Another form of support is employment as a teaching or research assistant—posts held by approximately 2,000 of the UW’s 7,200 graduate students. While TAs are usually state funded, research assistants are typically funded by federal research grants and contracts. These assistantships, which require the student to work 20 hours per week, start at $840 per month plus a tuition waiver.

The third option is a tuition waiver which, Woodruff points out, is especially attractive to an out-of-state student who faces tuition payments of more than $7,000 per year. Other support is available from federal sources, Woodruff notes, including fellowships from the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Education.

Money is certainly important for recruiting, but it’s by no means all important. Rose, reflecting on the 15 or so top chemistry prospects lost to competing universities last year, speculates that one or two were lured away by a better financial offer. Others simply liked another program better, Rose explains, but most went elsewhere because of the “perceived prestige” of the competing program.

Applicants also consider location. For some, Seattle is too far away. In other cases, however, the UW’s relative isolation is a recruiting advantage. Candidates for advanced degrees often hold jobs at the same time. “So they’re not going to be able to go to Arizona and do this,” Woodruff points out. “Education is the best example but that pattern exists, to a lesser extent, in nursing, social work, even engineering, architecture and, to some extent, public affairs. We call these professional or practice-oriented graduate programs.”

If, as Woodruff suggests, good graduate students draw good faculty, good faculty also draw good graduate students.

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James Dorsey, who describes himself as in the “twilight zone” between his master’s and Ph.D. degrees in the Department of Asian Languages and Literature, spurned more lucrative and secure offers from the University of Chicago and Indiana University because of the high quality of UW faculty. “I looked up their books and articles,” says Dorsey, who was impressed not only with the quality of publications, but the courtesy and interest extended to him during a campus visit. Dorsey accepted a nine-month research assistantship which will run out soon. “It’s a one year shot,” he laments cheerfully. “I have to face that jungle again.”

Joan Sanders, a Ph.D. candidate in bioengineering, declined what she calls a “a free ride” at the University of Texas and the University of Houston to accept a research assistantship at the UW. Sanders based her decision on the strength of the mechanical engineering department and the School of Medicine and the high degree of interdepartmental cooperation.

“Money was not such an issue,” says Sanders who emerged from her undergraduate education free of student-loan debt. Had she been debt-burdened, she says, she would probably have chosen one of the fellowship offers at a competing institution.

All too often, Woodruff says, undergraduate debt stops the application process before it begins. “They’re so in debt after four years—or however long it takes to get their degree—that this becomes a significant deterrent to going on to graduate school.”

In certain fields the number of U.S. citizens who go on to graduate school has become “quite low,” he adds. “For a number of years now less than half the engineering Ph.D.s awarded in U.S. universities have gone to U.S. citizens.” (International students at the UW, however, make up only about 15 percent of the graduate student population.)

The number of graduate students is expected to decline slightly, especially in professional programs such as medicine and law. Women, who currently make up 53 percent of America’s student population, will continue to outnumber male students.

An older, primarily female pool of graduate school candidates adds even more urgency to the issue of financial support. “Graduate school is not as accessible as we’d like it to be,” observes Felicia Porter, president of the UW’s Graduate and Professional Student Senate, who would like to see lower tuition and higher levels of support. “Single parents, for example, have no money and no recognition that it is harder for them. A lot of people dream of coming back but we must make it accessible.”

Attracting minority graduate students

In the shifting ethnic mix of the UW’s minority graduate student population, blacks are down and Asians up.

Black graduate student enrollment has declined 40 percent since 1975, according to Trevor Chandler, associate dean for minority education and graduate student services. Recently their numbers have begun rising again “very slowly.”

On the other hand, Chandler adds, increasing numbers of Asian applicants have kept the overall percentage of minority graduate students at a relatively stable 7 percent of the 7,200 graduate students currently enrolled.

Chandler identified 1975 as the year of “peak of minority enrollment.” The number of applications dipped in the early 1980s but are now on the rise again with about 1,000 applications received from non-whites annually. About 44 percent of those who apply are offered admission and, of those, nearly 60 percent attend the UW.

The UW’s experience with minority enrollment fits the national trend, “almost perfectly,” says Chandler. “But that’s not to say we shouldn’t be doing more.”

Chandler offers several possible explanations for the national decline in black applicants. These include the effect of the Reagan-era shift in federal support from grants to loans. Another is competition from industry, which offers attractive salaries to lure newly minted undergraduates directly into the job market.

Far too many are simply lost along the way. “There are so many leaks in the pipeline—kindergarten through college—places where minority students drop out,” Chandler laments.

Gene L. Woodruff, dean of the Graduate School, describes the UW’s minority-recruiting effort as “bigger and certainly better” than average. “We work hard with mixed results,” he observes.

UW officials comb lists of junior and senior undergraduates at colleges all over the country in search of qualified candidates, forwarding about 4,000 names to the departments in which the identified students have expressed interest.

Once an application is received, the follow-up begins. In the psychology department, for example, a graduate student telephones minority applicants and offers to answer questions from a student’s point of view.

The last step is preparing and offering a financial package, Chandler says. Support is available in a number of forms including the privately funded Danforth-Compton fellowships and the federally supported Patricia Roberts Harris fellowships.

Chandler notes that demographic trends show a nation that will be one-third minority by 2010. That means more minorities in institutions of higher education, he added, and will call for “drastic changes” in the amount of financial support provided. “They won’t be dirt poor,” Chandler says of these students. “But education is getting more expensive.”

The challenge, Chandler points out, will be to maintain both a high level of student support and a high standard of educational quality. Failure to meet that challenge, he cautions, could jeopardize the United States’ ability to compete in the global economy. “It’s a gloomy situation but not insurmountable,” Chandler says.