Student Issues



Volume 51 Number 2 
Spring 2018

Student Issues

Edited by Erin Godly-Reynolds and Jaimelee Behrendt-Mihalski, University of North Carolina Charlotte

A Call for Increased Transparency: Total Cost of U.S. Graduate School Attendance and Multi-Level Policy Implications

Federal-Level Proposed Cuts: Same Headline, Different Day

Written by Erin Godly-Reynolds & Jaimelee Behrendt-Mihalski, University of North Carolina Charlotte

In our current political climate in the U.S., we have become inundated with alerts of potential threats to our federal funding and other resources that support our graduate degree programs and individual-level funding streams that enable us to complete advanced degrees in Community Psychology and repay student loans after we graduate. While these threats seem to be never-ending, in December we enjoyed a small win that warranted a temporary sigh of relief: The provision to tax graduate student tuition waivers and grants was removed from the Tax Code chopping block. In its Education Advocacy Legislative Update released in January, the American Psychological Association (APA) explained that a coalition of advocates successfully stopped Congress from eliminating key tax provisions that support graduate students (APA Federal Action Network, 2018). APA (2018) described the preservation of student loan interest deduction and tuition remission tax wavers as critical to graduate students because of these policies’ role in making graduate study more accessible and affordable. Framed as a win for both graduate students and our university, our Graduate School electronically notified us of this federal-level policy news with “Good News for Graduate Students” as the subject. The message sparked a conversation among over twenty of our peers pursuing advanced degrees in psychology, which was fueled by APA’s sentiment regarding policies that impact access and affordability and informed by content we studied in a required diversity course.

Who Can Afford Graduate School Today?

We all enjoy the privilege of access to graduate school training because everyone involved in this conversation is a current doctoral or master’s student. However, we are aware of the differential levels of financial and familial sacrifices each of us currently endures and has committed to shouldering for the next however many years until our student loan debts have been repaid with interest. While many of us wrote to our representatives or advocated against the proposed cuts in other ways, there was an “elephant in the room” moment in the midst of this situation: Some of us would be just fine, while others may be forced out, financially unable to continue. We started reflecting upon how we got here, and as a group how we are already lacking diversity in terms of childhood SES, parental educational attainment, and race/ethnicity, and how those of us who are not from White, middle-class families are often hyperaware of that.

Despite an active initiative led by passionate faculty to recruit more diverse applicants, our program faces the same challenge as psychology graduate programs across the U.S. because, in general, who can afford to forgo a professional salary and benefits after earning their bachelor’s degree to enroll in graduate school instead? While 37.4% of the U.S. population identified as being of a racial/ethnic minority background in 2011 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2012), 75% of students enrolled in graduate programs like ours (i.e., housed in University College of Arts and Sciences) identified as Caucasian/White according to data collected from more than 500 programs offering advanced degrees in psychology (Cope, Michalski, & Fowler, 2016). According to Arnott (2012), disregarding any additional barriers imposed by cuts, some students may no longer be able to afford the cost of attendance at any level within public, higher education institutions because of the unsustainable rate of increases (i.e., 440% between 1984 and 2009); tuition raises have surpassed inflation every year since 1980 (Weeden, 2015).

Institutional-Level Decisions: How We Got Here

State legislators have utilized tuition policy as a tool to influence college affordability and access in some states (see Weeden, 2015), but tuition is not the only way for institutions to increase the total cost of attendance for students. Many students are unaware that fees, which are less regulated, were introduced by lobbyists for colleges in the 1980s to offset state budget cuts. In addition, the advent of fees cemented a consumer-marketplace approach to generating revenue in higher education reflecting the ideological principle that nothing in life should be free (Hayden, 2010). Rather than a temporary solution, as they were proposed, fees became permanent and they have escalated ever since (Hayden, 2010). A critic of fee hikes at UC Berkeley in 2007, Newfield (2016) foresaw how this approach of increasing fees to “market” in their law school “would only work for the ‘big four’ professional schools and that if applied to undergraduates, would wreck UC overall, as well as PhD programs and professional programs whose graduates have moderate incomes” (Part II, Stage 3, para. 77). Institutions are using fees to increase the cost of attendance without directly increasing list tuition (Arnott, 2012).

As doctoral students at a public, nonprofit institution, fees cost us more than the tax provision would have if it had passed and have serious financial implications. We decided that since our Graduate School began a conversation around concern for policies that adversely affect graduate students financially, we needed to capitalize on the opportunity by highlighting the impact of our institution’s fees policy. As a group, 25 doctoral students signed on to a letter to the Dean of the Graduate School explaining that we agree it’s good news the provision taxing our tuition waivers was no longer included in the federal budget bill but there are policy decisions, such as fee totals and allocation, made on the university level that have a more significant impact on the livelihood of graduate students. We illustrated our point from three perspectives: fees total 31.6% of the cost of attendance for graduate students; with a tuition waver, we retain only 70.7% of our stipend pay after deducting fees; as alumni, we will remember that as students we contributed more than $15,500 to the university in fees. In response, we were thanked for reaching out, and informed that a university-wide Task Force is looking into funding for graduate students, and our concerns would be taken to the Task Force. After we responded to inquire how we could directly support this initiative, including if we could send a student to represent us at a meeting, we were told there had been opportunities to participate during fall semester, there is already a graduate student representative on the Task Force, and that during the spring term there will be more opportunities for our input and evaluation. Among all 25 students who signed the letter, no one had made a connection between two forums advertised for graduate students to attend in November and this Task Force. In addition, faculty encouraged us to follow-up because of the lack of transparency regarding who is selected to serve on committees like this Task Force. We have not yet heard about any spring semester opportunities to participate, and we are concerned that offering citizen participation is being touted as a sincere effort to engage student stakeholders, while in reality, the response could be an empty gesture or strategy to appear supportive.

A Call for Transparency and Action

Realizing the potential ubiquity of our concerns, we reached out to faculty members and students at other institutions, hoping to better understand how institutional policies adversely affect their students and if they had successfully advocated for change. We heard anecdotes from others that echoed our concerns. Some of these stories focused on graduate students receiving stipends that are specifically meant to purchase health insurance but do not cover the cost of health insurance. Other institutions process student research grants and awards through their Financial Aid Office and use these awards to cover account balances. This negatively impacts students as they need to decide to either have an award paid directly to them and claim the award as taxable income, or have it processed through their university and put toward tuition and/or fees instead of toward their research as intended. Based on these examples, it is clear that policies across intuitions are negatively impacting students; many policies have more severe financial consequences than the previous version of the federal tax bill. One of the main criticisms of the tuition-related provision of the tax bill was that it would make higher education inaccessible to those from lower socioeconomic status backgrounds; however, student fees and other policies have the same effect, undercutting any efforts to make our graduate programs more diverse.

Since the financial burden of attending graduate school is common across many departments and institutions, particularly in the U.S., there is a need for more transparency, so we can start talking about these issues more openly and advocating for feasible changes. For instance, after conversations about the disparities in graduate stipends across social science and business programs, students at one institution decided to stand in solidarity and split stipends equally across programs. Others have fought to start (or preserve) graduate student unions to advocate for student needs or have created student advisory groups that allow students to vote on how fees are allocated. While some of these actions may not be feasible at all institutions, having these conversations is important and allows us to advocate for ourselves and our fellow graduate students.

While continuing to combat federal-level policy changes is important and worthy of our efforts, it seems that we need not look beyond our campuses to find root causes of the issue, systemic problems within our institutions that have created a dire need for federal assistance that is at the mercy of new administrations every four to eight years. We hope that this call for transparency will spark conversations around federal, state, and institutional-level policies that influence who is able to be trained as future leaders in our field.  


APA Federal Action Network. (2018). Education Advocacy Legislative Update. Retrieved from

Arnott, A. (2012). An examination of institutional factors related to the use of fees at public four-year universities. InterActions: UCLA Journal of Education and Information Studies, 8(1). Retrieved from

Cope, C., Michalski, D. S., & Fowler, G. A. (2016). Summary Report: Student Demographics (American Psychological Association Education Directorate). Retrieved from

Hayden, T. (2010, April 2). We Can’t Afford to Be Quiet About the Rising Cost of College. The Chronicle of Higher Education, B4–B5.

Newfield, C. (2016). The great mistake: How we wrecked public universities and how we can fix them [Kindle Edition]. Retrieved from

U.S. Census Bureau. (2012). United States Census (p. 940). Retrieved from

Weeden, D. (2015, September 8). Tuition Policy. Retrieved February 12, 2018, from

Grassroots in Graduate School: Organizing and Advocating for Diversity

Written by Robyn Borgman*, Alesha D. Bond*, Ciera B. Lewis, and Samantha S. Watts


This paper summarizes the incredible efforts of a group of psychology graduate students at Georgia State University (GSU) to lift up issues related to diversity across our department. GSU is self-promoted as “ranking among the most diverse universities in the country” (GSU Public Relations and Marketing Communications, 2017) with 68% of the student body identifying as a member of an underrepresented minority group (Forbes, 2015); however, that diversity is not always reflected in the graduate student body nor their supervising faculty. Thus, it is of importance to us to prioritize diversity and advocate for this across our department. We define diversity as including individuals from historically underrepresented groups in terms of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, religious beliefs, socioeconomic status, physical and mental abilities, and gender identity.

Before the Beginning: Early Departmental Efforts

Diversity has been a priority in GSU’s Psychology Department, among both graduate students and faculty, for many years. The department’s Diversity Committee, comprised of faculty representatives from each of the five graduate programs (i.e., Clinical, Cognitive, Community, Developmental, and Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience) and one graduate student representative, focuses on a range of issues concerning diversity, including “support[ing] affirmative action policies and other recruitment and retention initiatives that promote a demographically diverse faculty, staff, and student body” (GSU College of Arts and Sciences, 2018). Further, in 2009, graduate students in Clinical Psychology developed the Clinic Diversity Committee, which aims to attend to diversity issues pertaining to clients of the GSU Psychology Clinic and student-clinicians.

To supplement the work of the department, students formed the Graduate Association of Student Psychologists (GASP) to advocate for the needs of all graduate students in the psychology department while providing opportunities for professional development, networking, and community building. By conducting student needs assessments and having student representatives at all policy levels of the department, GASP has successfully highlighted and advocated for the needs of graduate students. In 2005, GASP developed and administered a survey regarding student’s experiences with their faculty mentors. This survey revealed that students were satisfied with their professional support received, but they indicated they needed more support from mentors in other ways.

In more recent years, GASP has continued to seek a deeper understanding of graduate student experiences to better meet their needs. In 2015, GASP conducted a survey focused on students’ interests and concerns regarding various graduate student issues, including diversity and professional development. Through this survey, we discovered that students’ experiences varied greatly; some felt their personal and professional needs were being sufficiently met, whereas many others felt the department was falling short. Students presented this information and a brief literature review at a SCRA 2015 roundtable, later reflected on in the Fall 2015 edition of The Community Psychologist (Daboin et al., 2015). GASP brought this to the attention of the executives in the department. As a result, an additional department-wide survey was conducted, including faculty, staff, and graduate students. This survey assessed department members’ attitudes about the departmental climate pertaining to issues of diversity. The results of this survey revealed that, although not a sentiment shared by the majority, some felt that research on experiences of individuals and communities from diverse backgrounds might not be perceived as valuable. Students, overall, felt that issues concerning diversity were still not prioritized as they should. This indicated that the needs of all graduate students in the psychology department were not being met. Because advocating for all student needs is a core goal of GASP, our president at the time, Dr. Dominique Thomas, suggested we create a student-led group designed to meet these unfulfilled needs and, thus, was the birth of GSU’s Diversity Spotlight.

Year One: Finding Our Bearings and Learning Our Identity.

In the beginning, the main goal of Diversity Spotlight was to highlight psychology student scholarship on diversity-related topics. We wanted to give students from all five psychology programs a chance to come together and discuss diversity-related issues from multiple academic perspectives. It also served as a space for discussions about other non-academic diversity-related issues (career opportunities, current events, socio-political concerns, etc.). In the first meeting, we decided that, while we found our footing, Diversity Spotlight would be a graduate student-led space for graduate students only. Because many members of the group were nearing milestones and preparing for conferences, an initial task for the group was inviting students from diverse backgrounds or conducting research on issues of diversity to present in this inclusive space.

Also, during this time, the widely publicized March for Science was held. We dedicated two meetings to discuss the march, the media, and whether we wanted to be involved. The March for Science, like the Women’s March, was widely criticized for being very white-centric and not valuing “the soft-sciences.” As psychologists studying social problems, we felt that our voices were not being valued. Further, as a group comprised of people from diverse backgrounds, we felt concerned that the March for Science may not be for us. These discussions served as a turning point for our group. We saw a great need to advocate for scientists from diverse backgrounds, especially those studying issues of diversity and began this work in our own department.

Year Two: Turning Passion into Action!

In year two, our mission expanded to include a focus on participating in diversity-related department initiatives and advocacy work to ensure the climate of the department, not just our small group, was welcoming to students from diverse backgrounds or who conducted research with diverse populations. Currently, we are working to advocate for the following initiatives/goals with an emphasis on being sensitive to needs of students from underrepresented backgrounds: 1) comprehensive faculty mentorship guidelines, 2) a presentation on effective mentoring, and 3) a survey feedback mechanism for students to provide information about their graduate and mentorship experiences.


As a student-led organization, we encountered challenges and barriers to progress. As graduate students, we understand the power differential between mentors and mentees which can be exacerbated by existing diversity-related power dynamics. Because of this, we attempted to find a balance between the implementation of goals and maintaining a harmonious atmosphere in the department. One barrier relates to the general communication between interested parties. Although there are various groups on campus that are interested in diversity-related issues, it can be difficult to keep track of the initiatives each group is putting forth. Another challenge has been managing faculty responses and reactions to our initiatives. Although our overall goal is to collaborate and work with faculty members, it can be difficult to advocate for the needs of students without alienating mentors. Further, it can be tough to emphasize the importance of our initiatives in a way that incites internal motivation for change. Because faculty may generally feel that they are being asked to “do more work, for less pay,” our initiatives, at times, have come across as another task that they are being asked to do with little incentive. One final challenge has been coping with limited time and resources. Graduate students have a notoriously overwhelming workload, not leaving much time for self-serving advocacy work.

Overcoming challenges. As a group, we have discovered ways to navigate the challenging terrain. To improve communication between faculty and students, while being sensitive to power differentials, we often meet with faculty as a group. We have found it helpful to minimize solo representation by having multiple group members involved in the discussion as opposed to one individual member speaking for the whole. Given the time constraints discussed previously, we have recently taken a “divide and conquer” approach to accomplish our goals, capitalizing on each of our strengths and availability where we can. And, lastly, we do our best to consult the entire group before making any decisions regarding faculty collaborations.

Conclusions and Future Directions

In the future, we intend to minimize disjointed efforts within the department by collaborating with other diversity-related groups, including those led by faculty members (i.e., Diversity Committee). Overall, as a group, we have found that many support our goals and initiatives. Word has quickly spread of our department presence, and this momentum has strengthened the connections we have made. There is an eagerness to connect us with other people they feel could aid in our progress or other groups with similar goals. While we are consistently met with unexpected challenges, Diversity Spotlight members have developed a strong sense of community and feel empowered to overcome these challenges with our peers in the future.


Daboin, I., Zuckerman, A., Thomas, D., & Borgman, R. (2015). Culturally Sensitive Mentoring: Reflections from a SCRA Roundtable. The Community Psychologist, 48(4).

Forbes (2015). America’s Top Colleges: Georgia State University. Retrieved from:

Georgia State University Public Relations and Marketing Communications (2017). Georgia State Ranks Among the Most Diverse Institutions in the Country. Retrieved from

Georgia State University College of Arts and Sciences (2018). Diversity. Retrieved from:


Robyn Borgman* (, Alesha D. Bond* (, Ciera B. Lewis (, and Samantha S. Watts ( * indicates equal authorship