CSU places temporary hold on grants for graduate students

With the first year of a two-year master’s degree in counseling almost under her belt, Arielle Smith is looking forward to a career as a college counselor. But since she discovered last week that the crucial grant that she expected to cover her tuition might not be available next year, attaining that goal has been called into question.

Smith, 25, is not alone in worrying about how she will pay for school next year, after the California State University put what, for now, remains a temporary hold on State University Grant offers for graduate students in the system.

“Based on the history of things, it’s almost a guarantee they’re going to raise tuition again… and having no recourse other than going more and more into debt, is not a very good position to be in,” said Smith

The SUG awards provide $90 million in aid to about 16,000 California graduate students each year, but with continued budget cuts, the policy regarding the grants is being reviewed by Chancellor Charles B. Reed and the campus presidents at their monthly meeting this week.

“Unlike undergrads, we’re not eligible for Cal Grants, Pell Grants, our only form of financial aid is the SUGs and looking for our own scholarships and now since we’re not eligible for subsidized loans anymore, we can only rely on unsubsidized and private loans,” said Hayley Leventhal, 25, who is, like Smith, a graduate student in the counseling department at SF State.

Last year, graduate students became ineligible for subsidized loans.

In the 2011-12 academic year, 1,375 of the 4,057 graduate students at SF State were awarded a SUG as part of their financial aid, according to Jo Volkert, associate vice president of enrollment management.

CSU spokesman Erik Fallis warned against panicking about the hold. “It’s not nearly as black and white or yes or no as I’ve heard it stated,” he said. “It could be really different, or it could be no change at all.”

Still, for students like Smith, who already works in the counseling department office as part of her work study and interns in the athletics department on top of classes, the idea of having to take on additional loans or take on another part-time job to help pay for school is daunting.

“This would put me $35,000 in debt for a two-year grad program in a profession with not a very sure career outlook right now, because of the economy,” said Smith.

The confusion and worry surrounding the potential loss of grant funding has been amplified by the small trickle of information surrounding the hold. SF State students were not informed that the grants would not be part of their aid package, but rather discovered it simply by its absence.

“We regret the confusion and anxiety this uncertainty may cause our graduate students, and will send an email to them today to apologize for the confusion,” said Volkert in an email statement Friday.

According to Miles Nevin, executive director of the California State Student Association, very little information about the hold has been released.

“Right now, we have very little information,” said Nevin. “We’re saying, ‘Let’s wait and see what they do and then take a stand.’”

But Smith and Leventhal, aren’t waiting until a decision has been made to make their opinions heard. Immediately after confirming last week that there was a system-wide hold on SUG awards for graduate students, the pair started an online petition urging the chancellor and presidents to continue funding graduate education through the SUG awards.

In a little less than a week, the petition has gathered more than 2,300 signatures, with comments being forwarded to the chancellors and presidents.

For Leventhal and Smith, the petition is not just about them.

“What we really want to emphasize is that this isn’t just counseling students, this is nursing students, MBA students, students who are going for their teaching credentials, engineering students,” said Leventhal. “These are the students who will be taking the high-skilled jobs in California and by getting rid of this very vital student aid, we’ll be attracting not the most talented students, we’ll be attracting the most talented students who can afford to go into these programs.”

They are receiving the support of many faculty members, including English department chair Beverly Voloshin, who forwarded the petition to the department’s majors, minors, faculty and graduate students.

“Many of our graduate students are working part time, many of our graduate students are working as much as full time while they’re in graduate school,” said Voloshin. “So if their tuition grants are cancelled, some of them will be dropping out. Some of the very good students will be dropping out instead of finishing their degrees. That’s a real waste.”

While no explicit timeline has been set for a decision, Fallis said that students will be made aware as soon as the review has been completed.

“At this point, there is no change to this policy,” he said. “Students will be notified if there is any change.”

The Academic Senate has also unanimously approved a resolution in opposition to any cuts to graduate grants through the SUG program.

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