In a Peer Spotlight webinar, InfoReady’s Carlos Moncada chatted with Dr. Julie Goodliffe, Assistant Dean for Graduate Funding and Research at the University of North Carolina Charlotte’s Graduate School.
Julie discussed how they have been using InfoReady to manage multiple processes, including providing summer funding, approving travel plans, and running competitive fellowship programs. Following are highlights from their conversation. To view the whole webinar, visit the InfoReady YouTube channel.
Carlos: Julie, could you tell us a little bit about the types of programs your office manages? Just in general, not even within InfoReady, just more broadly what you're doing in your office?
Julie: Sure. We are a state school and as a state school, at least in North Carolina, two things are true.
One is that somebody has to pay tuition. For graduate students we can't waive tuition so a way to be competitive with other graduate schools is we actually pay tuition for students. A big part of the money that we spend is to pay tuition for all of our doctoral students and pay some for a lot of master's students. We have money that we use to support students on stipends. As new graduate programs came to exist, the provost office gives the grad school money to administer and fund students. So, my team does that. I also manage the NSF graduate research fellowship grant on our campus, so that makes sure those fellows get their funding and manage all the reporting.
I also try to help other students do well with other competitive applications. The summer fellowships that the graduate school offers are a way to provide professional development. Students actually have to prepare a good application and we evaluate them and give scores. That way they're learning how to do this the best way while they're also competing for money.
The second thing that's true is at the end of the fiscal year, we have to spend all the money. There's no rolling over to the future. At the end of each fiscal year, we often have money left over. And that's where InfoReady comes in. We spend a lot of money by the end of the fiscal year doing various competitions in InfoReady.
Carlos: There are a lot of different programs and processes you're running. You mentioned you're the main funding mechanism to pay for grad students, so the volume is very high. And what you're doing is very important to getting grad students in the door at UNC Charlotte.
Julie: Absolutely. They won't come. Doctoral students will not come if someone doesn't pay their tuition, and they shouldn't. No one should go to grad school for five years and pay for that. Absolutely. If we didn’t do that, we don't get any doctoral students.
Carlos: Those decisions are really driving enrollment there. I think you mentioned it's $15 million a year.
Julie: $15 million with tuition, health insurance and some stipend support. Maybe $4 million of that is stipend support.
Carlos: Which one of these programs are you managing in InfoReady right now?
Julie: Well, actually, those programs run through Banner. And our IT folks have built systems that can feed Banner, so we have our own homemade systems that spend most of that money. The money that we need to use InfoReady for are the creative things where it's not just set tuition or set stipend.
For example, the end of the fiscal year is coming, we have $500,000 left to spend. What do we want to do? So, we open up competitions for conference funding and travel. We can blast out using InfoReady to say all students, “hey, anybody presenting at a conference, upload your abstract and the invitation to present in this application, and we can provide some money.”
We also do the summer fellowship. Doctoral students submit an application, like a research fellowship application. I recruit around 40 faculty members every year to be reviewers, which they use InfoReady. It's competitive, so only the top scores will get money.
Also, last year, we had a lot of money left over. We did a bunch of these competitions, and it was really fun. We got creative and decided, okay, assistant professors need help, right? They're working to get tenure, and maybe they need a student to help them this summer. I sent out a blast to assistant professors saying, “hey, apply for a $5,000 summer fellowship for your student to work with you”. And that was amazing. Within, like 24 hours, they had spent $150,000. They got their applications in, and the students were approved for funding.
That was really fun because they're really on the ball, those assistant professors, and they are very grateful for any help and support. And they also loved the system. I actually had students and faculty both say, this is so cool. This system (InfoReady) works well.
I'm telling you, nobody paid me to do this, so I'm just telling you the truth about how much I love InfoReady. And the students and the faculty loved the system and the way it worked. Rather than emails back and forth, it was an official, nice way to interact with system.
One more thing that has helped us so much is there are a lot of Fulbright students on campus. The Fulbright program is run through the U. S. Department of State, and they often want a cost share with the university. When a student comes from overseas to your university, the Fulbright will pay for some of their stipend or tuition or something. Then they often ask the institution to provide a little support also. And we have no way of knowing who these students are. How much did we pay for them last year? Are they still here? What are we doing? So, we set up the Fulbright application in InfoReady, where a faculty member who admits a Fulbright student then fills out an InfoReady application for a cost share. Now we know who the student is, who's the faculty member, what program are they in, how much money do we owe them every year? That was lost in emails because when somebody leaves university there goes all of the information because it lived in their email inbox.
Using InfoReady for the Fulbright has also been very helpful. It's totally changed the way we cope with that, too.
Carlos: Well, that's great. Thanks for the rundown. You mentioned you recruit about 40 reviewers a year. Can you tell us a little bit more about how that goes? Working with reviewers is one thing that people always want to know more about because it can be a struggle recruiting and managing reviewers for the processes.
Julie: Sure, I'd love to. That is so interesting. When I first started doing the summer fellowship, I just asked my buddies, people who know me, “hey, I'm doing this thing. I think it would be great if faculty could review students’ applications”. We get 40 or 50 applications. It's $8,000 a student for the summer. I reviewed and other people reviewed, but as the students found out about it, the number of applications grew and grew and grew and grew.
I was spending all of March reviewing these applications, but then I realized that it's a competition, right? The faculty know students apply but somebody else decides who gets it. Well, wouldn't it be helpful for the faculty to be involved in that decision making?
I often email a program director in one program, mechanical engineering, or something, and say, “hey, we have 20 mechanical engineering applications, but we have zero reviewers that are actually in the field of mechanical engineering. Can you find somebody to help us review?” And they would. It also helps to be the person on campus that manages all that tuition money because faculty want their students supported.
Carlos: So, they open your emails. They're like, oh, it's coming from Julie. I'll open that email.
Julie: Exactly. It's smart to open my emails, but it's been really fun. After several years of doing this fellowship thing, and reviewing all of the applications, I knew which programs had students that had really good applications and which ones had not so good applications. I started sending reviewers in the departments that had students with bad applications, in my opinion, the best applications. The students who had great applications, I wanted them to go to the faculty in the departments where the students were not so good at their applications so that the faculty could see what's going on elsewhere on campus. I want a faculty to see what our students are capable of in various places across campus. I've used this fellowship, for lots of purposes, actually.
Carlos: You've been very clever and strategic in how you've gone about that.
Julie: Yeah, it's higher ed, right? It's all faculty, students, and everybody can learn from each other.
Carlos: That's great. You've given us some great background information, and there are threads of life before InfoReady in there as well. So, can you tell us a little bit more about life before InfoReady versus after InfoReady and what the transition was like?
Julie: Well, okay, so before InfoReady, the very first time I did this fellowship thing, it was just basically an email out. Students would reply to the email and send me an attachment, so the application came by email. And that is always bad because emails get lost. It's just a bad idea.
Then I switched to a Google Form where you attach your application, and then you get the Google Sheet with everybody's name. I'd use the Google Sheet to assign reviewers. And then I take that Google Sheet and divide it up into a bunch of different Sheets. One sheet per faculty reviewer. Oh, my gosh, a gazillion Google sheets.
Then I decided, okay, I'm going to just do one giant Google Sheet. The following year I figured out how to lock down and protect ranges. Faculty did mess it up still. I had to go to version history and fix where a professor deleted four different things. It was tenuous and it was labor intensive and involved a ton of emails.
Then I presented about this summer fellowship program at a NAGAP meeting. Someone from InfoReady talked to me and said, “hey, you know that there's a system that can manage all of this for you? And I said, really? Yay.” She did a demo, and we said, “okay, we can pay for this. It's worth it”. Oh, my gosh now I just launch the call for applications.
I send out information to faculty and to students that this is available now. Then InfoReady just does all that work for me that I used to do -- try to organize the Google Sheets and try to set up reviewers the before and after. It's such a huge difference.
I remember the last time I did all this by Google Sheets was during the pandemic. We were dealing with everybody being sent home. I had a kindergartner on online kindergarten, and I was reading all these applications and dealing with all these Google Sheets. It was just insane. The following year we had InfoReady, and my life was completely different. I was like, it is March and wow, I don't have all that stuff to do because InfoReady was handling it.
Carlos: I'm glad that was helpful. Well, a lot of the manual stuff, as you described, InfoReady automatically does for you. You do have to set up the form the way you want the work to flow, but the system really takes away a lot of that tedious work.
Julie: Yes. I love the automated emailing to remind reviewers “you have reviews due”. Also, I asked for a progress report and had a deadline, so it reminded all the students that they had to submit their progress report and they actually did it. And it didn't come in an email to me. It's all in the system. I can actually read them anytime.
Absolutely. The automation is huge. Also, the automation makes it official too. Where if something doesn't go somebody's way, like a student doesn't get the fellowship and they get the email from InfoReady instead of from me personally, it's easier, right? It's less of a personal rejection.
Carlos: Yeah, no, that makes sense. Do people ever push back on not getting it?
Julie: It has happened once or twice. So that's part of the reason why I set up the reviewers. I required them to make comments and InfoReady is awesome. You put that little star on the comments, and it's required so they have to make comments. I release all the comments to the students because they complain. They think we're just making this up arbitrarily picking one person or another, when actually a faculty member read it and has a bunch of problems with it. It's really cool to let the students see their reviews to get constructive feedback.
Carlos: Yeah, they can improve. They can improve and then also not wonder why they didn't get the fellowship. It's nice to be transparent that way.
Julie: Yeah, that is very important, actually.
Carlos: You provide this funding and make these decisions. How do you measure the ROI? What kind of metrics are you looking to gather and how do you collect the information?
Julie: For the graduate school summer fellowship, the $8,000 funding, I asked our institutional research people for time-to-degree data for all doctoral students that graduated in the past number of years that we've been doing this. I analyzed that data. I know who applied for our summer fellowship, obviously, and who got it and who didn't, who had other types of summer fellowships or assistantships. I compared time-to-degree and found, on average, the summer fellowship sped up time to degree by 9.6 months! And that sounds awfully precise, but I did do the stats on it. It's true. And for some programs, students in some programs, it chopped a year off of time-to-degree.
Carlos: That is amazing. Think, like, how many people who went to grad school would love to cut out an academic year.
Julie: That was our hope that we're doing this professional development by helping students survive in the summer without having to teach. We thought maybe the best-case scenario is they take the time that they now have in the summer to actually get a lot of work done that they can't get done during the academic year. It turns out to be true. Now, certain programs, it doesn't really help their time to degree, but they're already four and a half years’ time-to- degree, so they're already pretty awesome. But some programs with an eight-year time-to-degree drop it down to seven. That's awesome. Right?
Carlos: But having those numbers, you can promote that in your recruitment?
Julie: We have a person who I think is going to start doing that. The dean told our provost about it and the provost said, “oh my gosh, that's cool”. And now she's giving us the extra money to do even more of this every year. We always spend whatever we have left in the grad school, but now academic affairs is dumping more money into that bucket so that we can do it for more students because of the effect it has on students’ education.
Watch the webinar for the rest of the conversation.