So Hoos Asking: What’s the Process Behind Funding Graduate Students?

June 4, 2024
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(Photo by Erin Edgerton, University Communications)

The University of Virginia is a bustling hive of thousands of faculty, staff and students. Naturally, making sure that its financial transactions are routed correctly is complicated.

Distributing funding to graduate students can be especially complex, given the various types of support they receive, including fellowship and scholarship support, wages, reimbursements and health insurance.

The University has received several questions about delays and inaccuracies in the delivery of funds to graduate students, so we reached out to Phil Trella, associate vice provost and director of UVA’s Office of Graduate and Postdoctoral Affairs, to help us understand the process.

“Delivering graduate student aid is more complex than providing a bi-weekly or monthly paycheck, where the amount of pay and funding sources remain relatively steady,” Trella said. “Graduate students are first and foremost students, so the aid they receive is tailored and dependent upon where they are in their educational programs.”

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In any semester, a student may receive support through a graduate research position or teaching assistantship, which provides wages and other benefits, such as tuition, fees and health insurance. The funds also may be supplemented with additional scholarship and fellowship funding, paid as non-wage stipends. Some students may receive their aid for a semester as fellowship funding that allows them to focus on their studies without engaging in additional work.

Others receive fellowship funds to participate in external professional development internships or research-related training grants. Each of these funding types come from different sources, including University funds, government grants and contracts, University-associated organizations, industry partnerships and external foundations.

“What compounds this complexity is these individualized packages of support often change by term, so a student who is serving as a teaching assistant in the fall may be supported by a University fellowship in the spring, and then receive funding from an external foundation to conduct research in the summer,” Trella said. “If you take all these possible iterations, multiply them by 2,300 Ph.D. students alone, then reshuffle that deck three times a year, you begin to get a picture of the challenge.”

Additionally, wages and stipends are processed through different systems.

“Each wage assignment is unique and must be entered individually,” Trella said. “A (teaching assistant) who teaches in both fall and spring will receive two individual wage assignments with a different supervisor – the course’s instructor – for each. These sources of funds have compliance requirements that interact with enrollment in different ways.”

When Do Wages and Stipends Reach Students?

Generally, wages are provided after work is completed, while stipends are provided monthly ahead of the period they are supporting.

“So, in many programs, a stipend to support the month of May should appear in the student’s account no later than the May 1 deadline,” Trella said. “However, we plan to have aid dispersed at least a week ahead of that deadline to get students their funds earlier, account for flexibility among departments, and give us a wider window to catch and fix errors before the true deadline.”

A headshot of Phil Trella

Phil Trella, associate vice provost and director of UVA’s Office of Graduate and Postdoctoral Affairs, knows firsthand the complicated nature of graduate student wages and stipends. (Contributed photo)

What Happened in December 2022?

An error in processing stipends occurred over winter break in 2022. The break was extended by two days, and in turn the processing date for stipends was earlier. As a result, the January fellowship stipends for around 180 students were not processed in time for their typical delivery at the first of the month. The University learned about the error and jumped into action to correct it. Many stipends began appearing in student accounts before the end of December, but some were not received until the first week of January.

“We understand that even a brief delay in payments adversely affects our graduate students,” Trella said. 

Following the error, Provost Ian Baucom established a Graduate Stipend Task Force to identify process improvements and prevent similar errors.

“We also contacted leasing offices for complexes housing affected students, letting them know about the error and negotiating an extended grace period for student rent payments,” Trella said.

Is Low Staffing Causing Issues in Processing Funds?

The University continues to monitor staffing gaps across schools and departments that process stipends. Although a lack of staff was not the primary cause of the error that occurred in 2022, the challenge was heightened by transitions that were occurring at the time in key roles within the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences. Since that time, these vacancies have been filled and other help has been added, with plans for more support.

So, Is This Still Happening?

In the last year, the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences processed approximately 21,000 payments to 1,100 students. In that time, around 60 errors have been reported or otherwise detected, all of which were resolved quickly. That’s an accuracy rate of 99.7%.

“Human error happens, and it’s there in that 0.3%,” Trella said. “Reported issues since 2022 have been more isolated and tied to unique circumstances. We have worked to build more redundancy into the system and catch potential problems before they impact students. What’s important is that any errors are caught and resolved quickly.

“We’re watching for errors all the time, and usually resolve them ahead of delivery deadlines. However, it’s normal and encouraged for anyone to keep an eye on their account around the time a paycheck or stipend is expected,” Trella said. “Students who notice a problem should immediately report it, either through our online form or to their contacts at the school level. In fact, it can’t hurt to do both. We actively monitor the reporting form and will be in touch with the student to resolve issues quickly.”

Media Contact

Bethanie Glover

Deputy University Spokesperson