When Lauren Caton began her doctoral program at UNC, she chose to live with three other people to afford rent.
Caton is a doctoral student in the Department of Maternal and Child Health at Gillings School of Global Public Health. When she began 18 months ago, her stipend was $15,700 per year.
“I had to select a situation where I would be inconvenienced by having roommates in order to reduce the cost of rent,” she said.
Effective Jan. 1, the minimum stipend for doctoral students in the UNC Graduate School increased from $17,000 to $20,000 over a nine-month service period. Service stipends often include coverage of tuition, fees and health insurance. Any income above the minimum stipend depends on the academic department.
According to a recent Graduate and Professional Student Government survey, the average rent among over 1,100 graduate student respondents was $1,260.72 per month — about ⅔ of a monthly minimum stipend check.
And median rents in Chapel Hill have increased since 2019.
“I think one word people would use is ‘unlivable’— that Chapel Hill is an expensive place to live,” said Theodore Nollert, the president of the GPSG and a doctoral student in the Department of English and Comparative Literature. “And because of that, people either take on a bunch of roommates, they take on extra jobs or they move outside the city limits. And then they have a longer commute to campus because they’re looking for cheaper housing.”
Nearly 40 percent of graduate student respondents in the survey said they held a second job in addition to their research and teaching positions to supplement their income.
This extra money often comes from teaching extra classes at UNC or community colleges, tutoring, working service jobs or participating in freelance work.
Caton works a second job at Duke University, and she has previously bartended and babysat for colleagues to supplement her graduate income.
“Everybody I know picks up extra work of some sort. Obviously, it’s just literally unsustainable,” said Jillian Kern, a doctoral student in the Department of English and Comparative Literature.
Kern has started teaching extra undergraduate English classes and selling vintage items online to make ends meet.
“Most graduate students I know are working two or three jobs. That means you’re not able to dedicate enough of your time to your science," Caton said. "It doesn’t make you a better scientist, and if that’s the goal of this training, it’s falling short."
Many graduate students delay working on their degree to supplement income and make enough money for rent and living expenses. But affordable housing isn't the only thing they have to worry about.
“The cost of living — the income that people have to make to cover their own expenses — isn’t always the whole story. A lot of graduate students have children to care for; a lot of people have partners they are partly responsible for. Some people have parents to take care of; some people have their own medical costs or disabilities to deal with,” said Erik Maloney, president of CoLEAGS, the Comparative Literature and English Association of Graduate Students.
Graduate students are often supposed to spend their summers attending conferences or partaking in research experiences. But for graduate students on a nine-month minimum stipend, June and July are often spent working full-time to pay rent and other living expenses, Kern said.
“When the options are 'be slightly slower on your degree' or 'end up unable to afford food,' you make the choice you’ve got to make,” she said.
The recent increase in the minimum stipend has given some graduate students hope, but those living on the $20,000 minimum can still expect to spend about 75 percent of their income on rent.
“Since it is just a math problem of how much we’re getting paid versus how much it costs to live here, either the housing has to get cheaper or our stipends have to go up,” said Jackson Cacioppo, a doctoral student in the chemistry department.
Nollert hopes the University can build dense, subsidized graduate housing on campus.
“That’s one thing that would help — that students should get behind and support vocally and logistically and practically, in every way that they can,” he said. “And they should argue for that housing to have as many units as possible.”
Maloney said housing inequality for graduate students won’t be solved unless the graduate stipend is increased.
“Everything else is going to be a stopgap measure or a partial solution without just offering graduate students more funding,” he said.
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