Graduate Tuition Support at NSF

One thing that I didn’t know, before I came to NSF in 2014 was that support for graduate student research assistants as part of regular research grants includes tuition support that is not capped. According to this NSF FAQ:

Tuition remission is generally treated as part of an organization’s fringe benefit rate or as a direct cost. NSF’s policy is that colleges and universities should budget tuition remission consistent with its established indirect cost rate methodology and negotiated rate agreement. If tuition remission is budgeted as a direct cost, it should be listed in the “Other” category of the Budget under “Other Direct Costs.

Note that there is nothing about a cap in the above guidance.

In contrast, NIH does cap tuition support for graduate research assistants at around $16K. Here is the relevant NIH policy:

Undergraduate and Predoctoral Trainees and Fellows:  For institutional training grants (T32, T34, T35, T90, TL1, TL4) and individual fellowships (F30, F31), an amount per predoctoral trainee equal to 60% of the level requested by the applicant institution, up to $16,000 per year, will be provided.

This difference between the two science agencies is trivial for a lot of cases, were graduate students are paying in-state tuition at a public university. You can find some of the relevant data from the College Board here. However, in the case of some of the private research universities, this can be a very large amount of money. Here is the relevant tuition information for Princeton. And here in the same for Boston University. Even for public institutions, the out-of-state tuition can be very large in comparison to $16K (Rackham graduate school, University of Michigan).

Taken to its logical conclusion, NSF risks becoming a tuition-support agency instead of a science agency as tuition costs continue to rise across the country. This makes no sense. NSF should cap tuition support just like NIH does.