Why do universities “charge” and then “waive” tuition for graduate students, instead of simply voiding tuition for graduate students altogether?

Date: December 2017


Dear Ask a Dean,

I understand that you’ve already covered that Cornell uses subsections 117(a-c) to cover tuition for graduate students rather than the currently at-risk subsection 117(d). However, I was hoping you might be able to answer a broader question about tuition waivers for graduate students in academia. Given that universities simply shuffle money between internal accounts for tuition waivers, why does it benefit universities to “charge” and then “waive” tuition for graduate students at all, instead of simply voiding tuition for graduate students altogether? I trust that there is some reason to track things this way, but I’ve never seen any explanation for what it is.

Thank you,

Tired About Taxes


Dear Tired About Taxes,

Thanks for your Ask a Dean question, and for being a regular reader of Graduate Announcements and the Ask a Dean columns! Cornell’s Policy 3.13 addresses graduate tuition. As noted in the policy, “Whether graduate students are actively pursuing coursework or conducting independent research on- or off-campus, graduate education draws extensively on a range of university human and capital resources.  This and other tuition policies at Cornell are designed to offset these costs, and to ensure accurate accounting for revenue and revenue offsets.”

Many university resources are devoted to supporting graduate education, such as faculty and staff salaries directly in your graduate field, staff for all the various support services available to you at Cornell including the libraries, Graduate School professional development programs, and career services, staff for the various infrastructures that support the facilities that make your graduate education possible, like the Cornell information technologies network and the buildings in which you conduct your scholarship and other intellectual activities as you earn your graduate degree.  

Note that research degree tuition has not increased for almost a decade, remaining at $29,500/year or $20,800/year depending on the research degree program.  Some external fellowships, grants, and contracts provide tuition revenue to Cornell, but in most cases do not cover full research degree tuition; university-wide programs exist to reduce tuition costs charged to grants or contracts (e.g., typically 1/2 of tuition is charged to a grant while the college or university covers the other ½).

As Policy 3.13 explains, “Tuition is never waived; financial aid may be applied to offset the tuition charges to the student, but the tuition charge remains on the student account.  Many university-wide financial aid programs exist that offset the tuition charge, particularly when tuition is paid from sponsored agreements.  Tuition credits to student accounts may result from assistantship appointments, fellowship awards, traineeships, scholarships, awards from third-party sponsors, loans, or payments by students.”

The university’s Budget Model system of allocated costs provides a framework for transferring funds from the revenue centers (e.g., enterprise units deriving revenue through fees; academic units deriving revenue through tuition) to those units that provide services (e.g., University Library, Cornell Information Technologies, Career ServicesPathways to Success professional development programs for graduate students, etc.).  For example, academic units are ‘billed’ (via their allocated cost assessment) for costs associated with the University Library based in part on the number of graduate students associated with their unit (and the number of undergraduate students, faculty, etc.).  Different metrics are used for different services, depending on who the users are who drive the costs of those services.

I hope this helps address your question, and clarifies that graduate tuition is never waived.

Warm regards,


Barbara A. Knuth
Senior Vice Provost Graduate School