The Daily Tar Heel

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Saturday October 23rd

Graduate students on minimum stipends aren't earning Orange County's living wage

For UNC’s doctoral programs and master’s/doctoral programs, the current minimum stipend for a research assistant or teaching assistant to qualify for tuition remission or an in-state tuition award is $15,700 on a nine-month basis.

Individual departments must meet this minimum stipend for graduate students who are research assistants or teaching assistants so they can qualify for tuition remission or an in-state tuition award, but departments can exceed the stipend if they choose to do so.

Steven Matson, dean of the Graduate School, said the minimum stipend is primarily set by him in consultation with the Provost’s Office and the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. He said factors such as inflation rates, how much money is available and what stipends are paid by peer institutions are all taken into consideration.

Between 2008 and 2013, the minimum stipend was stagnant at $14,700 on a nine-month basis. Matson said this was because limited money was available during the recession.

“As we entered the recession in 2008, there was no funding to provide increases in the minimum stipend, so it was left at the same level during that period of time,” he said.

In 2013, the minimum stipend increased by $500, and then it increased again by $500 in 2014 to the current $15,700 on a nine-month basis.

Financing education

The minimum stipend is well below the living wage for a single adult in Orange County, which is $22,225 before taxes.

Taylor Livingston, vice president for external affairs of the Graduate and Professional Student Federation and a doctoral student in the anthropology department, said teaching assistants in her home department are on the minimum stipends. Livingston said the Federation supports an increase in the minimum stipend amount.

“We support an increase in the minimum stipend amount to match the livability standard for Chapel Hill and Carrboro and also to be in line with our peer institutions’,” she said.

She said UNC’s peer institutions’ stipends hover around $18,000 to $21,000 a year.

One fourth-year doctoral student in the history department, who asked to remain anonymous for privacy reasons, said he receives the minimum stipend. He said many graduate students in his department use their savings, go into credit card debt or take out student loans to supplement the stipend.

“There is a real financial strain,” he said. “It’s pretty rare that people do not dip into other sources of income somehow, just because the rent, you know, is not cheap.”

A third-year doctoral student in the English department, who asked to remain anonymous for privacy reasons, said he receives the minimum stipend. He said the stipend is sufficient for a single individual, but for graduate students who are supporting families or raising children, the stipend is too low.

“It’s enough to skip by here, but it’s not enough to start a family or get a house or anything like that,” he said.

Fees, summer funding

Some graduate students at UNC have to pay graduate student fees out of their stipends. According to a survey conducted by the Graduate and Professional Student Federation in 2014, 80 percent of more than 400 graduate students interviewed said their departments do not cover their student fees.

During the 2015-16 academic year, graduate fees are $1,931, making the minimum annual stipend for these students effectively $13,769 per year on a nine-month basis.

Between 2008 to 2016, the graduate fees were raised from $1,680 to $1,931 per year.

The third-year doctoral student in the English department said the graduate fees burden people with families.

“Two thousand dollars makes a big difference toward being able to support families or things like that, so it would be helpful for the University to find a way to waive our student fees or reduce them,” he said.

Livingston said another issue the federation tries to tackle is that even graduate students who are doing field work — and therefore not physically present on UNC’s campus — are still subject to the graduate student fees.

“We would like to see those fees to be more in line with what you are actually using,” she said.

Graduate students on minimum stipends who are funded on a nine-month basis are particularly strained by the lack of summer funding.

A fifth-year doctoral student in the English department, who asked to remain anonymous for privacy reasons, said she receives UNC’s minimum stipend. She said not all graduate students in her department are funded during the summers, so they take any jobs they can find.

She said doing academic work during the summer would help students, but they can’t afford it. She taught high school students and baby-sat during the summers to make do.

“I think that I would have been further along in the program if I did not have to do the part-time work,” she said.

Staying competitive

The fifth-year doctoral student in the English department said because UNC’s peer institutions offer higher stipends, the University has a disadvantage in trying to attract qualified students.

“I had offers from other places for more money. And it was really tough because UNC was my favorite, but I knew I would make financial sacrifice to come here,” she said.

Shelby Dawkins-Law, a third-year doctoral student in the UNC School of Education and the 2014-15 president of the Graduate and Professional Student Federation, said last semester when she worked as a teaching assistant, she received the minimum stipend. She said the low stipend affects the quality of the students who decide to go to UNC.

“If you cannot compete with a $30,000 offer from a private school, your program is going to suffer because of that,” she said. “You are not getting the best student, which means you are not getting the best products coming out of them, teaching and research wise.”

Dawkins-Law said state legislators should fund UNC better so that the instructional budget can be raised.

“If the state would just fund UNC the way that it ought to, UNC could be a heck of a lot of more competitive than it is right now,” she said.

In the end, the fifth-year doctoral student in the English department said she appreciates UNC’s education quality.

“I am having such a great education here, and I just wish that we were compensated for the amount of the work we do in the way that enables us to focus on our research and scholarship,” she said.

university@dailytarheel.com



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