A Better Seat At The Table

October 18, 2004

As dean of the Graduate School, Larry Lyon has worked hard to keep a seat for his division at the Baylor family table, where the centerpiece has always been the undergraduate experience -- the University has 164 baccalaureate degree programs and 19 doctoral programs. At times, he may even have felt like he was being relegated to the children's table at Thanksgiving dinner.

In fall 1998, his first year as dean, graduate enrollment was close to 1,200 -- less than one-tenth of the overall student population. Visible, but still the distant cousin.

When Baylor 2012 was launched three years ago, however, the Graduate Studies program suddenly took on favored-child status. It moved to the forefront in the 10-year vision, a clarion call to propel Baylor into the rank of America's finest universities by focusing on scholarly research and enhanced graduate programs (see page 20).

"I knew this was our chance, and that we might never get it again," says Lyon, BA '71, who returned to his alma mater as a professor of sociology in 1975. "The progress we have made to date was inconceivable six years ago. Inconceivable."

As a social scientist, Lyon has the data to back up that statement. The 2003-04 academic report shows applications to graduate studies at an all-time high (1,555), increasing 59 percent over the past four years. Enrollment in fall 2003 also was a record at 1,406 students, as was doctoral student enrollment at 427. The average GRE scores for all students rose by more than 40 points over the last three years. Enrolling students in seven of Baylor's doctoral programs scored more than 100 points, and in most cases, 200 points higher than the national average, Lyon says.

Enrollment is not as telling as how many finish a graduate program and how long it takes. Nationally, the dropout rate for PhD programs is estimated at 40 percent to 50 percent, although consistent data is hard to collect, Lyon says. At Baylor, 70 percent of graduate students complete their doctoral degrees, Lyon says, most within seven years of enrollment. In 2003-04, the Graduate School awarded its highest number of doctoral degrees (78) as well as 570 master's degrees. That compares to 53 and 485, respectively, in 1998-99.

The University of Texas or SMU wouldn't salivate over those numbers; nonetheless, Lyon says the change is significant. "I don't think the collective consciousness of Baylor has wrapped itself around the idea of graduate studies, graduate students, graduate programs as an integral part of the University, but it's happening," he says. "It's happening in ways I could not have realistically envisioned prior to 2012, and it will be a different Baylor and a better Baylor." Lyon's challenge is to steer a course that identifies priorities -- being competitive for top graduate students and serving the whole student to assure completion of degree. The competition is fierce, and there are three reasons to win it, he says: to enhance Baylor's scholarly reputation, to support faculty research agendas and to mentor undergraduate students.

To sign these top graduates, Baylor has increased its financial packages, adding larger stipends to the waived tuition most doctoral students receive. The stipends vary by discipline, with sciences awarding higher amounts than the humanities because of more external funding. These stipends vary from $5,000 to $20,000 a year, Lyon says, but, "that is usually not enough to win the competition for a good graduate student." For the strongest candidates, Lyon often finds additional funding from the Graduate School budget to sweeten the pot. "That usually is enough to get us in the running for the strongest students. You have to pay a premium to get the ones that other schools want, and when it's all said and done, that's who we really want.

Even when we lose now, we're losing to the right people. In other words, when they turn us down for Vanderbilt or Duke, it doesn't hurt quite so badly." Lyon says Baylor needs to be more competitive in the health insurance it offers, which is an expensive proposition. Currently, Baylor provides what Lyon describes as "very basic health insurance" for a small number of doctoral students who teach at least six hours or conduct at least six hours of labs a year. "We've made some progress, but that's the next step of trying to be competitive," he says.

Attrition among doctoral students is a growing concern in national higher education. Some universities over-recruit to compensate for high dropout rates. Some state universities have no limit on the years-to-degree completion, resulting in financial gain for the university, which is subsidized by the state for doctoral students. Neither applies at Baylor, Lyon says.

"Our financial incentive works exactly the opposite way. We get no subsidy from the state, so we are very careful at the front end, before we make an offer, to make them only to students we believe can and will graduate."

Exit interviews, required of all graduates, support Lyon's contention that the University gets a good fit in its recruits and that their satisfaction level is high. "The same individual attention, accessible faculty, feeling of belonging and that people care about me as a whole person that undergraduates say is special, graduate students say the same thing," he says.

This fall, the effort gained momentum with the appointment of Laine Scales as associate dean of Graduate Studies and professional development. Her assignment, Lyon says, is to "help the student become all she or he can be as a whole person, to not become disillusioned or get lost."

Scales, who has a PhD in higher education from the University of Kentucky at Lexington and a master's of social work from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., is working to strengthen the graduate teaching assistant (GTA) experience and enhance community among graduate students. About 50 doctoral students teach at Baylor, comprising about 5 percent of the University's faculty. Scales introduced and co-taught a course called Introduction to College Teaching last spring, and it will be offered again this spring. It introduces GTAs to the research and scholarship of teaching in higher education and gives them opportunities to practice their teaching, receive feedback and meet with veteran Baylor teachers.

"Our Baylor GTAs will be the future faculty of a wide variety of colleges and universities as they graduate from Baylor," says Scales, who has split her time this fall between the Graduate Studies office and the School of Social Work, where she has been on faculty since 1999. "I am thrilled to have this opportunity to help with 'faculty development' of our future faculty as well as support for graduate faculty as they mentor graduate students."

Creating this teaching community imparts pedagogical skills while providing a network for feedback and support among students across the disciplines. That's been a problem for students in the humanities, where research often is a solitary effort -- unlike the sciences, where laboratory research is more collaborative. Scales has planned a monthly coffee at which former and current class members can visit, share teaching experiences and support one another. She also hopes to have a lounge on campus where graduate students can meet to build community across disciplinary lines.

"In my experience, when we provide a place, a reason and support, students come together to accomplish amazing things on their own," she says. "We set them up and are available for them to touch base when they need to, but when they are ready, we get out of their way and off they go."

Scales also plans to meet with graduate faculty to discuss how the School is meeting the needs of graduate students. "We have good data about what students need and want. Those [exit] surveys also indicate how much students appreciate opportunities to be a part of a community with professors and with other students." Serving the needs of the whole student can make a big difference in recruitment and completion, Lyon says. "All of the studies on attrition show that the people who drop out are as intellectually capable as those who stay with it. They drop out for other reasons: family problems, financial reasons, difficulties with the faculty mentor. We do a good job of treating the graduate student as a whole person, but we will soon be doing a better job."