Stipends can be used for any kind of expense, including tuition and the cost of living. Graduate students receive this pay in return for working as either teaching assistants or research assistants.
For many graduate students, the base stipend amount of $14,700 a year — set for teaching assistants by the Provost’s Office and the Graduate School — is not enough to cover the costs of living, tuition and student fees.
Individual departments can exceed the base stipend, but many don’t have the ability within their budgets.
Some departments are trying to respond to students’ concerns, but administrators said they are limited by a lack of funding,
“As these instructional budgets have been cut, it’s meant fewer TAs, fewer grad students in some cases and an inability to increase graduate stipends,” said Steve Matson, dean of the Graduate School.
But for the physics and astronomy department, officials found money to raise stipends after students brought up the issue.
JoEllen McBride, a research assistant, presented a detailed report showing that the physics department’s stipends lagged behind peer institutions’.
The department raised stipends from $22,000 a year to $22,800 a year for incoming students.
“The faculty were against paying the students more money at the beginning, but we don’t want students to spend all of their time worrying about money and not doing research,” said Sean Washburn, associate department chairman.
Graduate students are also beginning discussions with top administrators.
Earlier this month, Bertucci met with Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Bruce Carney about where UNC’s priorities stand for stipend increases.
“I think they understand our reasons, it’s more now them trying to figure out, with budget cuts affecting the entire campus, where grad students fall,” Bertucci said.
“But we feel like this is the year where we have to catch up, we have to get back on track in terms of keeping stipends at the level they should be to keep us competitive.”
Carney said although the stipend is not a huge budget issue, it is definitely an important one.
“I certainly know about their problems,” he said.
Sandra Hoeflich, an associate dean of the Graduate School, said the school and Carney are very concerned.
“We are the University we are because of the work of graduate students and faculty.”
Going forward, Matson said there are two possibilities that would allow the University to increase the minimum stipend.
The University either needs to receive more in state funds at the state budget meeting in May, or Carney has to choose to set aside some portion of recent tuition increases for graduate students.
“I agree that at present, the stipend established by the Graduate School is too low for our grad students,” Matson said.
“We are actively thinking about different strategies that might be successful in allowing us to find funding to increase the stipend.”
Bertucci said the stipend can be the deciding factor when choosing a graduate school.
“There have been times when we’ve had visitors and we’ve heard that the stipend has become a factor in choosing another school,” he said.
“Students definitely go where the money is as well as intellectual interest,” he added.
Graduate students are also bound by other constraints.
Teaching and research assistants can only work 20 hours a week, and taking a job outside of the University is frowned upon, McBride said.
Alex Mills, outgoing treasurer of the GPSF, said although he understands the difficulty of what the administration is facing, students still have a responsibility to keep the topic on administrators’ radars.
“Our goal is to make sure they’re prioritizing our needs,” he said. “We’re really making a contribution to the University, not just asking for more money.”
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