Few grad assistants at PSU

Despite Portland State enrollment of more than twice as many graduate students than University of Oregon or Oregon State University, PSU employs less than half as many graduate assistants as either university and receives less state funding for the program.

Graduate assistantship appointments, either for teaching or research, come with a stipend and cover at least a portion of the student’s tuition. For many graduate students, particularly those planning careers in academia, assistantships provide both essential financial support, experience in their fields of study and teaching and research mentorship.

Berni Pilip, coordinator of Systems Development in the Office of Graduate Studies and Research, said there are a number of reasons for the assistantship gap between Portland State and the other Oregon universities.

"PSU has more part-time students, and more students working at full-time jobs while they are enrolled in graduate programs,” she said. “PSU also has more professional programs, while UO and OSU have programs that require a greater number of research assistants."

Pilip said funding differences between the Oregon universities has been a primary cause for the fewer PSU grad assistants.

"PSU has more grad students than other Oregon universities, and has fewer resources," Pilip said. "It all comes down to funding. PSU’s funding is not as great because we have more part-time students, and the university funding is based on FTE [full-time equivalent], not the head count."

Full-time equivalent is set at 15 scheduled credit hours for undergraduate students, and 12 credit hours for graduate students. The Oregon University system allocates funding based on how many students are enrolled at FTE level, rather than the total number of students, which leaves Portland State chronically under-funded compared to the state universities with more full-time students.

The assistantship gap is also a matter of research money.

"Currently, UO and OSU receive more research dollars than PSU and can thus hire more graduate research assistants," Pilip said.

As of Fall 2005, Portland State had 6,149 enrolled graduate students, and 586 of those students held assistantships qualifying them for at least partial tuition remission. By comparison, OSU had 2,976 graduate students, 1,187 of whom held assistantships during the same time period.

While assistantship figures at UO were only available for the 2004-05 academic year, they are roughly on par with OSU: 1,221 graduate assistants in 2004, with 2,903 total graduate students enrolled as of Fall 2005.

The five largest graduate programs at Portland State, measured by number of enrolled students, are Curriculum and Instruction (Education), Social Work, Special Education and Counselor Education, Business Administration and Public Administration. Most of these programs are terminal degrees, for which the assistantship experience may not be as key for professional success as in academic programs.

“Portland State has a higher percentage of masters programs, versus Ph.D. programs,” said Maureen Orr Eldred, Coordinator of Graduate Studies. “Across the country, masters programs are less likely to offer assistantships than Ph.D. programs.”

Pillip said the amount of graduate students who have assistantships depends on each department. She said some departments focus on getting their students assistantships, while with others the assistantships are not as much a focus.

“The principle of supporting all students with assistantships usually found only in Ph.D. programs, not masters programs,” Eldred added. “We are currently trying to ramp up the number of Ph.D. programs we offer.”

The Department of Psychology’s doctoral program limits its admissions based on how many assistantships it has the resources to offer.

“There is a market out there that we compete with. We won’t get top-quality students if we don’t offer assistantships.” said Robert Sinclair, the Psychology department’s assistant chair.

In his experience teaching at several different universities, Sinclair said, master’s students are often considered a source of revenue. The number of teaching assistantships available is also contingent on the instruction needs of individual departments.

"Some departments, such as the foreign languages and math, receive more money for instruction because they have a large number of undergraduate students,” Pilip said. “It depends on the needs of the university. If they have more students, they receive more money and have the option of hiring more graduate teaching assistants."