The Ten-Term Rule: Long-term Teaching Assistantships

Contents

Background | Current Policy | Implementation

Background

The Ten-Term Rule has its origins in the December 3, 1986 Report of the University Task Force on Graduate Financial Aid. This was a committee composed of nine faculty and one graduate student, charged by Vice President/Provost Billy E. Frye and Dean John D'Arms of the Rackham Graduate School with a review of all aspects of financial aid available to graduate students. While this Committee felt that one or two years of teaching experience will enhance the quality of a graduate student's preparation, it was quite skeptical of the value of long-term teaching assistantships. It noted further that students who rely heavily on teaching appointments for financial support tend to defer course work with the result that they take longer to complete their degrees - and this in turn has an adverse impact on the attractiveness of these individuals to potential employers. The Committee recognized that different programs necessarily require different lengths of time to completion, but it agreed that for both academic and economic reasons, shortening of the typical time to degree should be strongly encouraged. It defined an "ideal" five-year graduate financial aid package consisting of one year of full support, followed by two years of teaching assistantships, followed by two years of dissertation research fellowships.

In 1986, with the strong support of LSA Department Chairs, Dean Peter Steiner established the College policy of placing a limit on graduate student access to University financial aid. At the time, a number of departments had already established internal rules that limited access to financial aid - "six-term" and "eight-term" rules were common - but following the lead of the Task Force Report, Dean Steiner settled on the five-year/ten-term limit as the appropriate one to be applied at the College level.

Dean Steiner added two elements to the discussion at the same time. First, he believed that certain academic departments were responsible for lengthy times to completion in that they were placing excessive demands on their graduate students, using teaching assistantships for support while students carried out the extra work. He saw the "Ten-Term" rule as a means for encouraging such departments to rethink their curricula. His letter of June 25, 1987 to department chairs stated that one of the purposes of the policy is:

To strongly encourage, if not compel, departments to organize their graduate programs so that a decently prepared entering graduate student can complete the Ph.D. degree in a reasonable time and then get on with the rest of his or her life... For most programs we believe five years constitutes a reasonable goal, and that departments that require more ought to carefully consider whose purposes they are serving.

Second, the Task Force believed that there is great educational value in one or two years of teaching experience and that departments should offer the experience broadly across their graduate students. Dean Steiner stated that one of his purposes in creating the Ten-Term rule was "to assure that the successive cohorts of new graduate students have adequate access to this source of financial assistance and teaching experience."

Finally, Dean Steiner noted that the rule would help to avoid a trap that seems to ensnare some students. "..teaching assistantships should be transitory forms of employment, designed primarily to assist graduate students in securing their degrees, not as a long-term means of earning a living, nor as a way of stretching out the oft-cherished experience of staying in Ann Arbor."

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Current Policy

The College continues to espouse the academic and pedagogical principles that provide the foundation for the "Ten-Term" rule. There have been a number of modifications in the rule reflecting recognition of certain problems that arose in its application as well as changes in University circumstances:

  1. Dean Steiner's original model applied the rule to all forms of University financial aid, excluding only "external funding," and Rackham pre-doctoral fellowships. The College has relaxed the rule considerably by restricting its application to College funding sources. Thus all forms of financial aid from Rackham, and any support from other schools and colleges at the University are no longer included in the calculation of eligibility for continued support from LSA.
  2. The College has further relaxed the rule by excluding non-General Funds from the Ten-Term calculation. This means that students who are awarded aid through gifts and endowments administered by Departments need not include that support in the calculation of eligibility.

These two changes have been in place for several years and are particularly important for students whose programs require more than five years to complete. There are a number of programs that require extensive language study, and many graduate students carry out dissertation research abroad. The financial aid that is available for these activities typically does not come from College General Funds, and therefore even when these terms of study are fully supported, they are not included in the eligibility calculation. Rackham block grant, merit fellowships, dissertation fellowships and the like are similarly not included in the calculation, so that if, in the judgment of the Graduate School, study beyond five years is appropriate, there are forms of support available that do not conflict with the Ten-Term rule.

A more recent change concerns the treatment of small-fraction graderships. The original policy excluded from the calculation a maximum of two small-fraction graderships that were received before the first appointment at .25 or greater. After a graduate student received his or her first appointment at .25 or more, any term with support - even if only a small-fraction gradership - was to be included in the eligibility calculation. This arrangement has been replaced by a sliding scale. Graduate students may now take on graderships at any time during their programs and have them count as only fractional terms toward the ten. As few graduate students are supported by graderships during their first years, but many take on these roles later on, the revised policy makes this form of support more accessible to them.

Finally, although this is not a formal part of the policy, the College has introduced programs under which departments integrate pedagogy more thoroughly into their graduate academic programs. "TA Training" is now required in all departments. This increased emphasis has a twofold purpose. First, it recognizes the importance of high quality instruction for our undergraduates and seeks to provide them with Graduate Student Instructors who are well-prepared for and enthusiastic about their teaching. Second, it acknowledges the validity of the Task Force conclusion that teaching experience is a valuable part of graduate education by seeking to make teaching experience a formal part of that training.

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Implementation

Questions frequently arise concerning the details of implementation of the rule - what funding sources are included, how to handle small-fraction appointments, whether there can be exceptions, etc. Some of the most common issues are addressed below:

Funding Source: The rule applies to any graduate student support that comes from College General Funds. That primarily means GSI support, GSRA support in the museums, and Regents' fellowship support. It does not include Block grant funds from Rackham, GSRA positions on externally-funded grants, terms of support on externally-funded fellowships, training grants, or Rackham Regents fellowships.

Terms Counted: A term of support is treated as one full term toward the 10 if a) it is provided during the academic year, and b) the total LSA general fund support comes to a .25 fraction or greater. As a matter of practice, the College does not count GSI positions in Term III.

Graderships: Smaller fraction graderships of .2 or less are treated on a pro-rata basis where the tuition waiver forms the basis of the calculation. For example, two successive .2 graderships are treated as one regular term of GSI appointment. (Because each one generates 50% of a tuition waiver.) If two appointments are combined in one term so as to make a total of .25 or greater, then that is treated as one regular term of GSI appointment.

Relevant Unit: A term of support from any LSA unit is included toward the 10 terms. That means that one must combine support from different units in determining eligibility. Appointing units must be careful of this: it is not always obvious that a student may have completed 10 terms of support when he/she approaches some other unit with an open teaching position.

Exceptions: Departments cannot grant exceptions to the Ten-Term rule. Exceptions must be requested of the Deans Office by the department (not the student). Exceptions are rare. Grounds for requesting exceptions arise if a student suffers a medical condition that drastically impedes progress toward a degree, or if a dissertation suffers from an uncontrollable and unexpected reversal (e.g., an academic advisor leaves the university, depriving a student of a dissertation chair). Convenience for a Department or errors in calculating eligibility do not constitute grounds. Extracting from the original Steiner letter: "The argument that a particular person is 'the best available,' or 'only available' teaching assistant will not generally be persuasive, nor will evidence that the candidate is making excellent progress toward completion of the degree. Nor will the fact that the department has erroneously committed itself to a particular individual be grounds for an exception."

Changes in Field: If a student changes disciplines in the course of pursuing a degree - e.g., by dropping out of Chemistry and going into Political Science - some adjustment in the Ten-Term calculation is usually made in consultation with the Deans Office.

Students Enrolled in Other Schools and College: The Ten-Term rule is defined with respect to the uses of LSA financial aid resources and not to enrollment. A student who is enrolled in another school or college and who receives 10 terms of GSI support in one or more LSA departments has exhausted eligibility for further support through LSA.

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