Students upset about financial aid changes in COE

When Alejandro Gonzales and Kedwin Dominguez decided to pursue electrical engineering at USF, they always anticipated attending the College of Engineering’s (COE) master’s program.

That changed when they learned they could not receive financial aid to pay for tuition like they thought they would through a teaching assistant (TA) position.

That’s because funding that would normally be set aside as financial aid for TAs in the master’s program has been reallocated to recruit students into the college’s doctorate program. Before the switch, which will take place in the 2010-11 academic year, Gonzalez, a senior, said he would have received about an 80 percent tuition break through the program.

“Last year, basically, they had a balance between master’s students and Ph.D. students,” Gonzalez said of the money set aside to aid students in the programs. “Now, they’re moving to only Ph.D. students, so they’re taking the master’s off the TA positions.”

And John Wiencek, dean of the COE, said Gonzalez is right. The shifting of funds is a part of USF’s strategic plan, aimed at joining the Association of American Universities (AAU), Wiencek said – a nonprofit organization comprised of leading public and private research universities in the U.S. and Canada.

One of the keys to becoming a member of the AAU, Wiencek said, is having more doctorates awarded. With limited resources, that means placing more focus on the program.

Universities must be nominated for an invitation, which is based on research and graduate education programs and is extended via a three-fourths vote from “chief executive officers of the 63 AAU member universities,” according to its website.

“This is about the University as a whole, making sure we’re all on the same page,” Wiencek said.

However, Dominguez, also a senior, said he’s going to take his business elsewhere and look for another university to get his master’s degree because of the “radical change that came out of nowhere.”

“What they’re trying to say is once you get your bachelor’s you’re done and basically all we care about is our ranking,” he said.

A master’s degree is awarded after one year of graduate-level study, and a doctorate degree is awarded after at least three years of graduate-level study and a dissertation is approved by a board of professors.

A memo signed by Karen Liller, dean of USF’s graduate school, says that the COE was allocated $593,500 to support 36 new doctoral students for the 2010-11 academic year.

The COE must enroll and admit at least 104 new doctoral students. Improvements to graduate programs are exactly what Wiencek says will benefit undergraduate students.

“Many of the students entering the doctorate program have the full intention of securing their master’s degree on the way to securing their doctorate degree,” Wiencek said. “We continue to support highly qualified master’s students but are more closely scrutinizing the strategic use of financial resources.”

Wiencek said the COE has set goals for its individual programs: the Ph.D. program will grow, the master’s program will be maintained and experience slight growth and the undergraduate enrollment levels will remain the same.

Although those positions in the doctorate program are secured, Gonzalez said his future in the master’s program still hangs in the balance.

“It’s really bad. I thought I was going to do my master’s here,” Gonzalez said. “I got accepted into the graduate program, but now they just switched (funding) this semester.”

Additional reporting by Mel Nicoleau