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Going the Distance: COVID-19 Complicates Graduate Student Retention Efforts

When Dr. Cherisse R. Jones-Branch went to graduate school, she didn’t know what an academic CV looked like, let alone how to make one. Both of her parents had master’s degrees, but she was the first in her family to earn her doctorate.

Now she’s planning a professional development workshop on the topic as the inaugural dean of Arkansas State University’s reconstituted graduate school and the James and Wanda Lee Vaughn Endowed Professor of History. She started as dean on July 1 in the thick of the coronavirus pandemic, a time of heightened uncertainty for her students’ studies and job prospects. 

Dr. Cherisse R. Jones-Branch

“I reflect on my own experience in the way I think about how to best help students on this campus,” she says. “I think about what I didn’t know that I wish I had known. And I’m also interested in more than student academics. I’m interested in student wellness, because that’s a component we’re not talking about often enough. What does it mean to be a graduate student, particularly in this moment?”

That’s the quintessential question graduate school deans are asking themselves amid COVID-19: What is it like to be a graduate student right now? And how can colleges and universities keep them enrolled? 

For several decades, research has shown that about half of graduate students leave their programs before completing their degrees. Meanwhile, graduate students are six times more likely to experience anxiety and depression as people in other fields, according to a 2018 study in Nature Biotechnology. The same study found that about 39% of graduate students reported being moderately to severely depressed compared to only 6% of the general population.

And those are the numbers before a global pandemic shook up higher education. 

According to Dr. Regina Vasilatos-Younken, “Time to degree and continued academic progress are challenges for students under normal circumstances, given the considerable demands of graduate study.” 

Vasilatos-Younken is the vice provost for graduate education and dean of the graduate school at Pennsylvania State University, as well as a professor of endocrine physiology and nutrition. Now she sees graduate students facing new “disruptions” to their work and an added layer of uncertainty. 

Some graduate students can’t complete their doctoral work because of restricted access to libraries, labs and fieldwork sites. Graduate students who are parents are juggling childcare responsibilities, while others may be living with at-risk family members. Like their undergraduate counterparts, graduate students don’t know what spring will bring for their campuses, research and careers. 

International student challenges

Meanwhile, some, like international students, face an extra set of obstacles. 

These students already need to adjust to “a different culture both in the classroom and in life beyond campus,” Vasilatos-Younken says. “The pandemic has exacerbated these challenges … from the uncertainty regarding governmental immigration and travel restrictions to lack of access to CARES Act funding to being far from home when COVID-19 may be impacting family abroad.”

That’s why, at Penn State, the graduate school made sure international students could access emergency financial support through the Student Emergency Fund, kept close tabs on changing immigration guidance for students and created a special international student pathway which enabled incoming graduate students to start their programs from their home countries. 

Dr. Regina Vasilatos-Younken

Underrepresented students are also facing “increased pressure” after a summer that “laid bare the racial injustices endemic in our society,” Vasilatos-Younken noted, referring to national protests against police brutality. She emphasized the graduate school’s Office of Graduate Educational Equity Programs, which serves minority students by hosting check-ins, connecting them with resources in their departments, supporting affinity group programs and helping students access relief funds like Cares Act funding.

Graduate students of color need these kinds of targeted supports, says Dr. Joy Williamson-Lott, dean of the University of Washington graduate school. She’s also a scholar of Black higher educational history. 

Black, Latinx and indigenous communities continue to be disproportionately hit by COVID-19, and simultaneously “we’re in this time of racial reckoning and we see overt, systemic and literally lethal racism playing out again and again in our country,” she added. “We’re not about to pretend at the graduate school at the University of Washington that these kinds of issues only happen outside of academia. We have a particular role to play as an institution of higher education in serving these students, ensuring that they get a high-quality education, ensuring that they get the kind of support that they need to succeed ….”

University of Washington has a program called Graduate Opportunities and Minority Achievement Program, or GO-MAP, specifically designed to support these students. The program hosts “power hours” during which students meet with staff and outside experts to talk about how to practice self-care, counter microaggressions, negotiate salaries, battle imposter syndrome and more.

“I’ve heard personal anecdotes from countless students about how GO-MAP as a site for community building and affirmation of self has kept them in graduate school,” she says, and it’s “working overtime right now to meet our students where they are and to serve them in this time.”

Retention strategies

How can universities continue to keep graduate students in school? Williamson-Lott strongly believes that university leaders can’t draw on the same strategies for retaining graduate students that they would use for undergraduates. Graduate students’ needs — and the ways in which they’re affected by the pandemic — are fundamentally different. 

“Everyone in graduate education knows this,” she says. “Although undergraduates make up the bulk of our student body, we cannot create a response to help students fare during this time without taking up the particular needs of graduate students … we cannot create solutions based solely on the undergraduate experience.”

Dr. Joy Williamson-Lott

She stressed the importance of “responsive policy adjustments,” like making exams proctored online and removing late deposit fees. While the graduate school doesn’t have control over what individual departments do, she’s encouraged leaders across the university to consider making their own adjustments in response to key questions, like will they accept shorter or more limited doctoral theses if students’ fieldwork was interrupted? And how can they more broadly prepare students for a changed job market with higher education hiring freezes? 

Vasilatos-Younken agrees that a key to retaining graduate students right now is flexibility. Among other measures, Penn State committed to funding all of its new graduate student appointments through the spring semester, even for students unable to do their doctoral work. Plus, the graduate school advocated that the institution offer additional financial support and time — from a semester to an extra year — for graduate students to finish their degrees. 

She also highlighted the value of hands-on, flexible mentorship, citing a National Academies of Sciences report titled, “The Science of Effective Mentorship in STEM,” which found that mentors were “critical for graduate student retention and success.”

“During the pandemic, the importance of good mentoring can be even more critical because the stresses it has placed on both mentor’s and mentee’s professional and personal lives necessitate that both parties communicate well, find ways to navigate physical distancing requirements, adjust expectations for academic and research progress, and support the student’s academic and personal needs,” Vasilatos-Younken says. 

“The Graduate School at Penn State has emphasized in its messaging to graduate programs and graduate faculty the importance of being flexible with expectations for graduate students given the many challenges presented by and impact of the pandemic,” she added.

In that vein, Jones-Branch says her main focus is on communication, creating “as much close contact with graduate students as possible.”

She meets with the graduate student council once a month, encourages them to set up meetings with her and holds virtual office hours for students where her digital door is open for two-hour periods. 

While these are especially uncertain times, “I want students to know that they have an advocate, and that most of what [they] have experienced as a graduate student — mostly, not all — I’ve probably experienced,” she says. “I think a large part of students not just surviving graduate school but thriving is just knowing that people care.”    

This article originally appeared in the October 15, 2020 edition of Diverse. You can find it here.

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