Graduate Student Support Plan in Response to COVID-19

Executive Summary

On April 2, 2020, Provost Patrick Maggitti formed a University-wide committee to explore graduate student needs as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The goal was to better understand the myriad challenges— programmatic, scholarly, financial and other—our graduate students might be facing and to subsequently make recommendations about how Villanova might be able to alter, adapt, or increase the support provided to our diverse graduate student population, particularly in the short-term, as we respond as an institution to this global crisis.

Like all universities and colleges around the world, this pandemic has resulted in serious financial implications for Villanova. The University is committed to making crucial decisions in a thoughtful and equitable way as this crisis impacts each and every one of Villanova’s more than 13,000 students, faculty and staff.  With an understanding of these broader issues, the committee approached its work with an ethos of flexibility and creativity.

The committee’s work was guided by a recognition that the academic progress of many students is impacted. Policy-based adjustments were proposed, considering how we can be flexible while not sacrificing the quality of students’ academic endeavors. Additionally, some students will face significant financial hardship and any additional support provided must be done in a fair and equitable manner across our diverse graduate student populations. 

For context, over the 2019-2020 academic year, nearly 400 graduate students (>110 doctoral and >270 masters) were supported financially by Villanova through various assistantships. Some of these were expected to continue into Summer 2020, while others were 9-month positions. Tuition remission is also associated with most paid graduate assistantships, in addition to numerous tuition scholars’ positions across the University. Villanova also subsidizes doctoral student healthcare costs for all students—whether on assistantship or not—at an institutional cost of $250,000 annually. 

The committee considered how Villanova can continue to provide existing resources with as much continuity as possible, while looking for ways to find additional support for students given current campus access restrictions and wider University financial implications. Unfortunately, our endowment cannot serve as a simple fix to fill the gaps—as financial markets decline so does the value of our endowment and our ability to draw from available, unrestricted funds. 

Uncertainty about the immediate future is causing significant stress for our graduate students, as well as for the entire University community. A number of students have reached out to express their concerns and provide ideas, which we very much appreciate. Our goal is to operate within this crisis with the greatest of flexibility, creativity, empathy and equity.        

The committee consisted of Amanda Grannas as Chair (Associate Vice Provost for Research), Emory Woodard (Dean, CLAS Graduate Studies), Gerard Jones (Sr. Associate Dean for Graduate Studies and Research, Engineering), Marguerite Schlag (Assistant Dean and Director, Graduate Nursing Program), Manuel Nunez (Associate Dean, Graduate Programs, VSB), Michael Risch (Vice Dean, Law), Ray Duffy (Associate Vice President of Human Resources), Neil Horgan (Vice President, Financial Affairs), Leon Washington (Dean of Enrollment Management), Mary McGonigle (Director, Villanova University Health Center), and Tim Hoffman (Associate Vice Provost, Finance and Administration).  The plan was also reviewed by graduate student representatives from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the College of Engineering, the Villanova School of Business, the Charles Widger School of Law, and the M. Louise Fitzpatrick College of Nursing.

Goal:

To support the academic progress of Villanova graduate students to the greatest degree possible, while adhering to any federal, state, local or institutional restrictions in place. Additionally, this plan aims to respond to additional financial pressures experienced by graduate students as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Considerations:

  • Access to campus will be driven by federal, state, local or institutional restrictions. It is unclear when restrictions will lift but are likely to continue into Summer 2020. Physical distancing requirements may extend beyond the summer timeframe.
  • To resume on-campus research activity, a baseline level of infrastructure support is required including e.g. Environmental Health and Safety, Library, Facilities Management, UNIT, Public Safety, shipping/receiving.
  • Graduate students are the most vulnerable to a continuation of on-campus research restrictions. Many students cannot complete their degree/thesis/dissertation requirements without access to e.g. laboratories, physical library resources. Those students who cannot make academic progress will need extensions to complete their degrees.
  • A subset of graduate students will be able to engage in their Summer 2020 assistantship assignments, working remotely.
  • A subset of graduate students had expectations of Summer 2020 support through graduate assistantships or hourly work assignments that are no longer available. Other graduate students may have relied on external employment opportunities during summer 2020 that are no longer readily available.

Previously Announced Graduate Student Support in Response to COVID-19:

The University has worked diligently since mid-March to address the needs of our graduate students, providing additional support though Villanova is currently facing many financial pressures (as outlined in the May 7 message from University President Rev. Peter M. Donohue, OSA). Key support of the University’s graduate student community includes:

  • Continuing to pay tuition for all graduate students who receive it as part of their compensation.
  • Continuing to pay all its graduate assistants through May 31, whether or not they could work remotely.
  • Continuing to pay stipends for all graduate assistants who could continue their scheduled Summer 2020 graduate assistantships or hourly work assignments remotely.
  • Established and announced the below Graduate Student Hardship Fund for those facing significant financial hardship due to the disruption of campus operations caused by the COVID-19 crisis.
  • Providing numerous affordable physical and mental healthcare options for in-person or telemedicine visits, regardless of insurance status.
  • Continuing one-on-one consultations with the Career Center and the Center for Research and Fellowships to help identify career prospects, fellowships, research experiences and external grant funding opportunities.
     

Key Principles and Plan of Action

  • Faculty will work with students to develop alternative research plans to accommodate remote academic progress, such as:
    •  a greater reliance on existing data or simulations for laboratory studies.
    • the use of remote data collection tools, such as Qualtrics, or secondary data sources such as the Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR) in human subject research.
    • a greater reliance on available digital repositories for archival research.
  • Requirements for public thesis and dissertation defenses will be relaxed and replaced by online or webinar presentations, with consideration of available network connectivity.
  • Preliminary and comprehensive examinations will be hosted online, and accommodations will be made to account for:
    • Possible differences in student test-taking environments (e.g., some students may have access to a quiet test -taking environment and others may not)
    • Possible differences in network connectivity (e.g., some students may not have access to a reliable internet connection).
  • The requirement for physical signatures on capstone projects and other certifying documents will be relaxed and digital signatures will be allowed.
  • Students interrupted by the COVID-19 crisis will be automatically granted an additional year to their time to degree completion allowance, with longer extensions possible if recommended by their department, depending on the students’ personal circumstances.
  • Where appropriate, practicum and other experiential learning experiences may be replaced by practitioner led proseminars, reflection papers and other such exercises conducive to remote implementation.
  • Every effort will be made to increase opportunities for one-on-one mentoring sessions with faculty to develop tailored adjustments to plans of study and professional development opportunities moving forward.
  • Scholarly and professional conferences are an important avenue for professional development for graduate students. While current University travel restrictions preclude in-person conference attendance through Fall 2020, the cost of remote attendance (conference registration, etc.) can be reimbursed for students who would have otherwise been supported by the University to attend conferences to present their research, etc. Research or teaching conference attendance fully funded by external sources will not fall under this restriction, so long as students are adhering to any broader travel restrictions the University may have in place due to public health concerns, and may need to self-quarantine upon their return. Even in these circumstances, travel is highly discouraged at this time.
  • The University has a return to campus plan that can be enacted once facility access restrictions lift. Through department-led planning efforts, students will be able to begin to return to research labs and on-campus facilities while practicing social distancing and good hygiene.  This plan indicates that graduate students and postdoctoral scholars are to be given priority for a return to campus activity. 
  • While faculty and staff will not see a salary increase for the next fiscal year (June 1, 2020 – May 31, 2021), Villanova will increase graduate assistant stipends by 3% for this period.  The 3% increase is effective June 1, 2020.
  • Graduate students who can complete their expected Summer 2020 work remotely —whether graduate assistantships or hourly work assignments— will be paid their stipends and associated tuition remission as usual. Programs are expected to exercise flexibility and creativity to modify assignments to accommodate remote engagement for their GAs who would have otherwise been engaged in summer work/assistantships.
  • Graduate assistants (GAs) who are contributing to externally funded projects, even if working remotely, will continue to receive their stipend payments without interruption. Principal investigators should make every effort to develop alternative research plans to accommodate remote academic and project progress and allow GAs to remain on their original funding sources, including through potential re-budgeting of the grant. If a PI cannot engage their GA remotely, and the GA cannot be paid from the external funding source, the PI should work with their department and college to identify other funding sources (which could include PI 4-accounts, college IDC returns, etc.). If funding cannot be identified, the student should seek emergency support through the Graduate Student Hardship Fund (see below).
  • Any graduate students who had an expectation to engage in Summer 2020 assistantships but cannot do so may qualify for PA unemployment benefits. Under current federal legislation, an additional $600/week may be available through July 31, 2020. More information and the application for benefits is available on Pennsylvania’s Unemployment Benefits website. A detailed unemployment compensation handbook can be found here.
  • Students who are unable to work remotely or reasonably secure alternate research plans will likely need to extend the timeframe of their degree programs. Those currently supported by graduate assistantships will be provided up to one additional semester or summer of assistantship support. Tuition remission will be available during any program extension, although additional remission for course credits beyond degree requirements will not be provided.
  • Villanova established a Graduate Student Hardship Fund for those facing significant financial hardship due to lack of external summer employment opportunities, health care expenses and other unanticipated expenses. This fund is available to any degree-seeking graduate, doctoral or law student. Fundraising for this program began on April 1, 2020, and a portion of the federal CARES Act Allocation (granted to Villanova effective April 27, 2020) also will supplement this fund. The Office of Enrollment Management will administer this program and the application process was made available on May 15, 2020.
  • We anticipate paying the $1,000 health care subsidy for doctoral students as a lump sum in early July—rather than two payments in September 2020 and January 2021—as a credit to a student’s Villanova account. This credit can then be requested for payment via direct deposit. The subsidy will be available this summer for any students on medical leave as well.
  • Stipend payments for Academic Year 2020-2021 will begin in August—rather than September—to help ameliorate any loss of summer stipend payments.

Villanova Health Care Information

  • The Villanova Student Health Center is currently operational and open for student visits.  Enrolled Villanova students may visit the health center for a $25 fee per illness/injury, regardless of insurance status.  The University Counseling Center is also available for students. 
  • United Healthcare—purveyor of the University-sponsored student plan—is offering a telehealth option for Villanova students who cannot visit the Student Health Center in person. This resource is complimentary for students enrolled in the United Healthcare plan. There is a $40 consultation fee for those not enrolled in the plan.  For more information call 1-855-870-5858.
  • Health insurance is available to Villanova students through United Healthcare. A payment plan option allows students to spread out payments across an eight-month period (September-April). There is a $45 enrollment fee to be on the payment plan. Enrollment is not currently open at this time, but information on enrollment for the next academic year will be made available as soon as possible through the Villanova Student Health Center website

International Students

 

  • The International Student Office is currently operational and open to student appointments. All appointments must be scheduled with the Office. Students are reminded to contact the Office regarding issues such as program extensions, dropping below a full course load and off campus work authorizations. Although the Student Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) has modified regulations, students are reminded that they are still obligated to maintain their immigrant status and continue to make academic progress towards completion of their degree.

Career Service Information

  • The University’s Career Center and the Center for Research and Fellowships both offer consultations for graduate students, including exploration of career opportunities, fellowships, research experiences, and external grant funding opportunities to support your studies. Graduate students are encouraged to utilize these resources to further their professional development.  

Research Resources

  • Villanova University is an Institutional member of the National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity (NCFDD). All Villanova faculty, postdoctoral scholars and graduate students can take advantage of the online career development and mentoring resources.  Access information can be found here

External Resources

  • The Center for Access, Success, and Achievement has provided a resource list highlighting a number of external resources that could be useful for Villanova students.  Additionally, this resource from The Hope Center details external resources available for students.