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Final Town Hall Questions & Answers

In Fall 2015, the Graduate School hosted five town hall meetings to give graduate students the opportunity to have an open conversation with Dr. Nicholas Jones, executive vice president and provost; Dr. Regina Vasilatos-Younken, vice provost for graduate education and dean of the Graduate School; and Dr. Neil Sharkey, vice president for research. Deans from other Penn State colleges, along with associate deans and administrators, were also in attendance.

The question-and-answer format at the town halls provided insight into the educational, social, and life experiences of graduate students pursuing advanced degrees at University Park and campuses with graduate programs. 

As a follow up to the town hall meetings, we have created a final list of questions and answers, which appear below. 

Why is there a gap in student health insurance at the beginning of the year? 

There is not an actual gap in the student health insurance. Students are in fact covered for medical care, but the process for getting that care paid for may be slightly different at the beginning of the year. Unlike an employer plan, which has an open enrollment period that closes a month or so before the insurance is effective, the student plan becomes effective before the enrollment period. Thus, the list of students and associated payroll information (when relevant) cannot be communicated to the insurance carrier until after coverage starts. The intent is to have this process completed within one week or so in order for the vendor to update their systems.  During the period of time that the University is updating the lists, students are still covered, but claims will need to be processed retroactively, after the updates have been made. 

The Student Insurance Advisory Board and the Student Insurance Administrative Council routinely review the process of enrollment for students - as does University Health Services - to determine areas of improvement. With the current payroll system, there is no alternative way to give updated information to the vendors prior to the date the coverage begins.  All students’ insurance coverage is effective back to the date of enrollment. If emergency medical care is needed, University Health Services (UHS) sends an "emergency add" notification to the insurance company to ensure that the student has been added to the system.  The Student Health Insurance office works very closely with the medical vendors to ensure that students will be treated during such critical times.

Why is there a lottery system for the Ride for Five program, and what’s being done to expand the program so that more students are eligible?

The Ride for Five program was created to reduce the number of faculty and staff vehicles coming to campus given the limited parking and supports University efforts to become a more sustainable institution. A decision was made to offer this opportunity to graduate students beginning in the 2014-15 academic year. The University did not anticipate the great demand for this new opportunity, and unfortunately, was unable to provide a pass for every graduate student who requested one. In order to handle the overwhelming requests, a lottery system was created to randomly select those who would receive passes. Fortunately, the University was able to increase the number of graduate student slots for the 2015-16 academic year.

After reviewing the first two years of the program’s rollout, and as a result of significant feedback from graduate students, the Transportation office, in collaboration with CATA, has made changes to the program to allow more graduate students to participate. Beginning with the 2016-17 academic year, the program’s name will be changed to RIDEpass. There will be no cap on the number of program participants in place this year, thus, a lottery will not be necessary. 

RIDEpass participants will have access to a CATA ONEPASS (valid for all CATA routes) at a discounted rate of $15 per month, with Transportation Services continuing to cover the remaining monthly cost for each pass holder. RIDEpass is open to all University Park graduate students living off campus. Graduate students residing at apartment complexes that provide access to a CATA pass as part of their rental agreement will not be eligible for the program, and participants may not be registered for a daytime-access Penn State parking permit while enrolled in the "RIDEpass" program, though they may register for an evening/weekend parking permit.

RIDEpass participants must live more than 0.75 miles (walking distance) from a CATA campus service Blue Loop or Red Link stop to be eligible for the “RIDEpass” program. This is a reduction from the previously-announced requirement of 1.5 miles. Additionally, all “RIDEpass” passes will be valid from the date of receipt through the end of the program year, which will run from July 1, 2016 through June 30, 2017. Participants may exit the program early and receive a prorated refund for time remaining on the pass or stop the recurring payroll deduction (depending on method of payment). However, participants who choose to exit the program before the pass expiration date will not be eligible to re-enter the program until the start of the next program year.

Additional information on the newly revised program can be found on the Transportation Services website.

How does the university allocate funding for different graduate programs?  How are those decisions made? What kind of financial assistance does the Graduate School provide for Ph.D. students?

There are three general sources of funding for graduate students enrolled in resident instruction graduate programs.  

  1. One source of funding is through graduate teaching assistantships that provide opportunities for graduate students to assist faculty members with teaching undergraduate courses. This funding is generally provided through instructional budgets within individual colleges.
  2. A second source of funding is graduate research assistantships, which are provided through faculty grants from federal agencies, private industry, or foundations. These assistantships enable graduate students to assist faculty with their research projects and are often related to the student’s own thesis research. 
  3. Lastly, some students receive fellowships, which are endowed through gifts to the university or provided by private foundations.  

Most of the funding sources are available to all graduate students but some require recipients to meet specific eligibility criteria. Funding decisions are made by individual academic programs and Colleges, and are generally not made at the Graduate School level. Some of the funding provided to students by the Colleges comes from Graduate School resources allocated to each College annually for use in recruiting and retaining high-achieving students.

Is there a plan to increase graduate assistant stipends?

Each year, the University reviews stipend levels to determine the rate of increase based on two criteria: the cost of living standards and the University budget. We are acutely aware that graduate students need financial support that meets the cost of living in the State College community. The University has taken steps to ensure that all assistantships will meet this standard in the coming years, which will require individual colleges to provide support packages that will achieve a living wage standard to students awarded assistantships.

Who should graduate students seek out if they need a neutral party to hear their concerns/complaints?

Here is what a student should do if they are experiencing a problem or if they have a concern within their academic program and their advisor is not able to assist them (or is the reason for the concern). 

  • The first point of contact is the program chair or department head. 
  • If the problem is not resolved at this level, the student may file a written grievance with the college administrator for graduate education (generally an associate or assistant dean or director for academic affairs) of his/her college.  
  • In response to this grievance, the college administrator (or assistant dean for graduate student affairs of the graduate school, in the case of a student in an intercollege graduate degree program housed in the Graduate School) will meet with the student, as well as with the faculty member(s) involved, in an effort to resolve the situation. 
  • If the problem cannot be resolved at the college level, the student may file a written grievance with the assistant dean for graduate student affairs of the Graduate School, who serves as a University–wide ombudsperson for all graduate students at Penn State. The assistant dean will work with all parties involved, or who need to be consulted, in order to resolve the issue. This process includes consultation with the vice provost and dean of the Graduate School as needed.  

Additional details regarding steps in this grievance protocol are in the Graduate Degree Programs Bulletin, Appendix II (Resolution of Problems).

As a general rule, students should seek to resolve issues they encounter at the lowest level possible (e.g. academic programs and Colleges) before consulting with the Graduate School or other University offices. There is also a Fact Sheet, which provides additional information on a number of topics, which students may find useful.

Other relevant policies on the Graduate School website include Guiding Principles for Good Practice in Graduate Education, and Grade Mediation and Adjudication and those in the University Policy Manual, especially RP02 (Handling Inquiries/Investigations into Questions of Ethics in Research and Other Scholarly Activities) and IP02 (Co-authorship of Scholarly Reports, Papers, and Publications).

Are graduate assistants considered employees, and what is the resulting impact on benefits (e.g. retirement, FMLA)?

Graduate assistants are not considered employees. Students appointed on an assistantship are at the University to complete a graduate degree, and the assistantship is a mechanism to provide training and financial support toward that goal. The majority of research performed by graduate research assistants is related to their degree requirements, while the tasks performed by teaching assistants are considered professional development. As a graduate assistant, students are ineligible for benefits that University employees receive such as retirement and the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Although College Offices of Human Resources may be involved in processing graduate assistant paperwork for their appointments, all matters related to assistantship responsibilities (e.g. identifying tasks, determining stipend levels, evaluating performance, etc.) should be addressed within the academic program by the student’s supervisor and the program chair/department head. The Graduate School does have a policy addressing paid leaves for graduate assistants when needed.

How does the Graduate School communicate important information to graduate students?

The Graduate School uses several mechanisms to communicate important information to students. Information is sent to each graduate program via program chairs, as well as program support staff, to disseminate to all students within their program. The Graduate School also sends information to graduate student organizations across the University with a request to disseminate the information to their organizational listservs. Lastly, information is regularly posted on the Graduate School’s website and on Facebook. 

How does the Graduate School ensure that graduate students have a voice at the University?

Penn State recognizes the need to include student perspectives in the decision making that takes place across the University. The Graduate and Professional Students Association (GPSA), housed under the Office of Student Affairs, is the University wide organization designed, in part, to provide a mechanism for graduate and professional students to be involved in University processes. The GPSA provides student representatives to both the Graduate Council and the Faculty Senate, which are the primary decision making bodies for University policies related to academic procedures. Additionally, the GPSA president serves on the board of trustees and there is GPSA representation on various University wide committees such as the Health Insurance Advisory Committee, central administrative search committees, the Graduate School Alumni Society Board, etc. The vice provost for graduate education and dean of the Graduate School, as well as the assistant dean for graduate student affairs, also regularly meet with GPSA representatives regarding various issues and concerns as needed. Lastly, the Graduate School seeks out student input from those who are not official GPSA representatives through town halls and other organized activities to ensure that the perspective of our graduate students is consistently recognized.

What support systems are in place for international graduate students regarding socialization, jobs, and VISA assistance?

The University Office of Global Programs (UOGP) is the primary unit responsible for addressing the needs of our international student population and has numerous programs and offices which provide information and advice on various topics of concern. Additionally, the Graduate School recognizes the need to ensure that our professional development activities include information that is particularly useful to international students and develops workshops designed to meet the specific needs of these students to the extent possible. Information on upcoming activities and workshops can be found on the Graduate School’s website.

How can the University promote more teaching experience for graduate students?

Penn State recognizes the need for graduate students to develop effective teaching skills prior to completing their degrees, particularly for those who wish to move into academic positions upon degree completion. Teaching assistantships have been the norm for quite some time in some Colleges, such as the College of Liberal Arts; however in recent years, an increasing number of teaching assistantships have been offered and even required in other Colleges, such as those in the STEM disciplines. While the University would like to see all graduate students receive substantial teaching experience, the needs in every College don’t allow for such experiences to occur for all students. The Graduate School offers the Graduate School Teaching Certificate, which students can complete at their own pace during their graduate studies to assist with developing their teaching skills. Additionally, the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence provides a myriad of services designed to aid students with the development of these skills.

How would graduate student unionization affect current and future graduate students?

You can read the Unionization FAQs on the Graduate School’s website.

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