GRADUATE EDUCATION STRATEGIC TASK FORCE FINDINGS
- American graduate students are a population dominated by older, returning students. Today's typical graduate student is a woman in her thirties pursuing a degree on a part-time basis, with a full-time job and married, often with responsibility for children and likely to have some education debt. These working adults have many needs that can be easily met with an increased understanding of their role in the Fairmont State University (FSU) community. By understanding that working adults are deeply committed to their programs, make large sacrifices to pursue their education, and have different needs from their program and the university community, improved services can be provided from the Office of Graduate Studies and other administrative units, including a reassessment of policies, the creation of assistantships designed for working adults, and creative communication tools.
- Many academic units at FSU have expressed an interest in developing new graduate programs only to discover that sufficient qualified faculty members are not available. Once any new "niche" graduate programs have been identified, additional funding must be made available for the faculty positions needed to support the programs.
- The current budget for graduate assistantships permits the placement of only four graduate assistants per academic year. As the demand for graduate assistants increases across campus, additional graduate teaching assistants (GTAs) and graduate research assistants (GRAs) positions should be funded in order to derive all the positive benefits described in the findings below.
- The expansion of graduate programs and the improvement of their quality have the potential for significant impact on undergraduate education and research, both direct and indirect. Of immediate concern to undergraduate programs is the important role that GTAs can play in the instruction of undergraduates. Developing and maintaining an adequate supply of capable GTAs is vital to many of the departments on campus in carrying out their instructional programs. GTAs can guide stimulating discussion sections, run laboratory sessions, and, in some departments, undertake even higher levels of responsibility in the classroom. Instruction of this kind can only be beneficial if the GTAs are of high caliber and the student-to-GTA ratio is kept at an appropriate level, which dictates improving the ratio of graduate to undergraduate students as undergraduate enrollment increases.
- Somewhat less obvious but nonetheless important is the role that GRAs play in the research efforts of undergraduates. As involvement in research becomes increasingly important in many areas of undergraduate education, the interaction of GRAs with undergraduates in these areas takes on greater significance. In many research groups, graduate students play the role of unofficial mentor of undergraduate researchers. Student participation in faculty research will increase appreciably with the development of graduate programs, thus directly involving students in a collaborative relationship with faculty and other students. Many of the national studies on undergraduate retention have cited the importance of this type of student involvement in learning as being a critical factor in successful retention.
- To attract, retain, and graduate quality graduate students requires FSU to put into place best practices that begin with identifying the best students and end with the timely completion of their degrees. Even with the small number of graduate programs currently offered at FSU, the practices are quite varied and of uneven quality.
- The quality of graduate education rests largely within graduate programs themselves. Strong mentoring is the cornerstone for any graduate program; advising loads must be reasonable, and faculty should be rewarded for mentoring students well. Communication vehicles and services need to be improved (especially web sites), and money saving structures should not interfere with the quality of the curriculum and the graduate experience.
- Indeed, the presence of graduate students on campus and the availability of graduate courses that advanced undergraduates may participate in significantly raise the quality of the undergraduate experience. to maintain this interaction at a healthy level, FSU needs to increase the ration of graduate enrollment to undergraduate, and also strive to improve the quality of graduate students.
- In some sense, however, one of the most important effects of increasing both the numbers and quality of graduate enrollment is the potential effect on the recruitment of faculty. In certain fields, faculty members will only go where there are good graduate students and good graduate research programs. The success and reputation of a university rests on the quality of its faculty, and the ability to attract an outstanding faculty rests in turn on the potential for interaction with an eager, bright, vibrant graduate population. Faculty quality clearly has an enormous an beneficial impact on the educational experiences of undergraduates.