The CUNY Graduate Center has a new plan in place to encourage doctoral candidates to finish in five years:
The center is recruiting the first 200 candidates who will receive new Graduate Center Fellowships to begin their studies in the fall in the humanities, social sciences and sciences (other than those in biochemistry, biology, chemistry and physics, who receive different scholarships). Candidates will be guaranteed full tuition funding and an annual $25,000 stipend for five years (that’s up 40 percent from the current stipend of $18,000). There’s also a decreased work requirement aimed at reducing time-to-degree: after starting the program as a research assistant or in a similar post, a student will teach one course per semester during his or her second, third and fourth years. Currently, graduate students teach two courses per semester.
Now, this does all look rather familiar. In effect, it's a non-transportable version of the now-defunct five-year Mellon Fellowships in the Humanities (strictly speaking, 3 + 2 fellowships: 3 years funded by the WWF, 2 by the doctoral institution), one of which I held from 1992-97. The CUNY GC stipend is rather more generous (I think my 5th year stipend was $16K), but then again, the students are in NYC, a city in which $25K/year is hardly conducive to luxurious living. However, the Mellon Fellowships also stipulated that students could not teach during the years they were supported by the WWF, which theoretically included the first two years of coursework and the final dissertation year; the CUNY GC plan adds another year of teaching to the schedule.
Why, you may ask, do the five-year Mellon Fellowships no longer exist? A little over twenty years ago, William Bowen's and Neil Rudenstine's In Pursuit of the Ph.D. (Princeton, 1992) surveyed, among many other things, the fate of the students enrolled in the Mellon program. They appear to have been somewhat puzzled by the results. They found that "completion rates have been surprisingly low (given the quality of the students chosen and the financial support provided), and that it has taken nearly as long for the recipients to complete their degrees as it has taken other graduate students" (196). Moreover, their statistics for the first cohort were discouraging: "35 percent of the fellows have received doctorates after eight years, and nearly one-quarter have resigned from the program" (205). In fact, the fellows from '83-'84 were not graduating faster than a speeding bullet, as a whopping "8 percent" achieved the five-year holy grail* and "20 percent" made it in six (205). Bear in mind that this was a fellowship program with a lengthy application and interview process and that doctoral institutions enthusiastically recruited the winners (although there were limits on the # of Mellons in any one place).
The results suggest a few things, one of them being that funding eo ipso does not, in fact, act like NetHack's Speed Boots once awarded. CUNY's decision to have students continue teaching during coursework may not accelerate matters appreciably. It certainly helps to have more money and less teaching, but there are other factors in play, including increased pressures for early professionalization (the endless conference hopping that many students are [wrongly! stop it!] doing or are advised to do; early publication; highly polished dissertations); the ever-increasing difficulty of finding a job at the other end, which encourages some students to put off filing their degree (are there stats about this?); unforeseen problems with mentoring; and, well, Life. As I've mentioned before, I did finish in five. All three of my committee members promptly collapsed in a dead faint, as that just didn't happen (and as I hadn't been on the job market that year, the situation was also somewhat, er, awkward, but never mind). While my time-to-degree was partly because the end of funding concentrated my mind wonderfully, it was also the case that a) I had no medical or personal crises of any kind; b) no teaching beyond two discussion sections*; and c) a cooperative, responsible dissertation committee composed of people who returned my work with helpful comments in a timely manner.
Hence I was rather jarred by this comment: "'The important issue is making students aware from the start that although they may not finish the degree in five years, if they [don’t], that will be principally a function of life decisions and life choices.'" Um. Sure. Maybe. But perhaps not. Illness of or injury to oneself, one's spouse, or one's parent; other unexpected disasters; and, yes, one's doctoral committee falling down on the job, a phenomenon not exactly unheard of. More to the point, even with excellent advising, it may not be possible or intellectually responsible to finish some (many?) doctoral dissertations in the five-year timeframe, let alone knocking out a publishable article or two (and conferencing!). Even nonstandard or experimental dissertations--multimedia projects, say--may easily push students beyond five years if they are to be done well.
*--Which didn't help at all when I was trying to get employed, I should note.
ETA 2/11: Some of CUNY's current graduate students are unamused, to say the least.