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Nearly 200 Rutgers grad students could lose funding June 30 after pandemic-delayed research, union says

Students could lose their health insurance, tuition and fee remission and teaching jobs, which pay about $30,000, when the funding dries up.

Robin Roscigno, fifth-year doctoral student in the Graduate School of Education, with her daughter, Pia, 8. Roscigno is in danger of losing her funding June 30.
Robin Roscigno, fifth-year doctoral student in the Graduate School of Education, with her daughter, Pia, 8. Roscigno is in danger of losing her funding June 30.Read moreCourtesy of Robin Roscigno

Robin Roscigno left her full-time teaching job in 2017 to pursue her doctorate at Rutgers University.

“I wanted to make a difference in the lives of disabled children,” said Roscigno, 36, of Point Pleasant, N.J., a fifth-year doctoral candidate at Rutgers’ Graduate School of Education in New Brunswick. “I am an autistic woman and I have an autistic child, so my work is deeply personal and formed by my life experiences.”

Completing the work for a doctorate in the best of times can be challenging. In a pandemic, Roscigno found it virtually impossible.

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The archives she needed to access for her research at Harvard were closed, and on top of that, she said she had her then-kindergarten-age child at home full time. Then her whole family got COVID-19 in 2021 and were in and out of a hospital for a month. She’s now dealing with long COVID symptoms, she said.

All those setbacks mean she’ll need one more year to finish, but she says Rutgers won’t give it to her. And she’s not alone.

The Rutgers faculty union estimates that 200 graduate students could lose their health insurance, tuition and fee remission, and teaching jobs, which pay about $30,000, as of June 30. Students typically are guaranteed the financial support and health insurance for a set number of years, depending on their department.

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The university had provided some graduate students, whose research was stymied during the pandemic, with funding beyond their guaranteed set times, awarding about $15 million in direct aid or assistantships since March 2021. But the federal money it used for that will be gone as of July 1, the university has said. It will be up to students and individual departments to work out arrangements so students can continue their studies. It’s “an extraordinarily difficult and important issue,” university spokesperson Dory Devlin said.

Around the country, graduate students faced obstacles completing their work during the pandemic, and colleges tried to help, some offering blanket extensions and others on a case-by-case basis, while also seeking to balance those students’ needs with providing resources for new students.

“The nature and degree of impact certainly differed among individual students due to a variety of factors, including the nature of their research,” said Lisa Powers, a spokesperson for Pennsylvania State University. “The Graduate School worked with units to assess what additional resources would be needed that could assist the most impacted graduate students with the greatest need at the dissertation research stage of their respective programs. Overall, nearly $1.75 million in university support was provided for up to three semesters.”

At Temple University, Matt Ford, a staff organizer for the school’s Graduate Students’ Association, said graduate students also faced challenges but didn’t get any sort of blanket pandemic relief. Individual departments gave an extra year of funding to some students, but it was not widespread, he said.

Ford, who is getting his doctorate in sociology, was able to get an additional year, along with several colleagues, he said. That meant the department did not fill those spots with new students that year, he said.

He hasn’t quite finished his doctoral work, he said, and will work additional jobs this year to get through.

At Rutgers, graduate students are disheartened and angry that the university won’t give them the support they need for one more year, given the university’s $1.98 billion endowment as of Dec. 31 and strong financial position. The union estimates it would cost the university $10 million for another year. Students have picketed outside a trustees’ meeting and asked university president Jonathan Holloway for help.

“I’ve been working as hard as I can,” Roscigno said during a recent town hall where students from the education school shared concerns. “I naively assumed my department would support me.”

But she said the department instead initially told students they would have to write an essay to compete for one fellowship. Several students who spoke at the town hall said they refused, likening it to turning their backs on valued colleagues.

“It was scary to think about not getting it,” Juliane Bilotta, 31, a fifth-year doctoral student from Toms River, N.J., said of the fellowship. “But it’s scarier to think about getting it.”

Bilotta, who is pursuing her doctorate in language education, has been offered potential funding through the department for another year, but most of her colleagues haven’t been as lucky. Before she found out, she had been talking to her parents about moving home and getting help to cover her health care or getting a full-time job.

“I was about to be out of health care and out of a job,” she said. “I shouldn’t have come so close to losing that.”

Bilotta said she had passed her qualifying exams and had been on target to finish in five years before the pandemic hit. In addition to some tough personal losses, she said the pandemic meant she couldn’t continue her research, which was mostly conducted in K-12 classrooms. Even once schools resumed in person, there were obstacles. So she changed her plans and did her research at a university instead, she said.

During her first three years of graduate school, Roscigno, who is pursuing her doctorate in education theory, policy, and organization, said she also was on target to graduate within five years. She passed her qualifying exams in 2019, published three journal articles, one encyclopedia entry, and three book chapters, served on multiple national boards, delivered a TED talk, and received a prestigious award, she said.

Even during the pandemic, she continued to teach her one class per semester at Rutgers, while working as an adjunct professor at another university.

Her department recently asked students to rank which is most important to them: keeping their health insurance, their teaching salary, or their tuition and fee waivers. While she’s on her husband’s health insurance, she needs the others, she said.

Rutgers recently offered to give her a $2,500 scholarship, but that’s not nearly adequate, she said.

Now, she and her husband are bracing for the reality that they will have to make up the loss. She’s teaching three classes this summer, and her husband, a music teacher, is working four nights a week.

“I’m going to have to try to finish by December,” she said. “I can’t afford to take two semesters.”