Educational (Un)Employment

GG recalls leaving undergrad school and getting offers from graduate programs that included financial support–tuition paid plus a stipend. “Wow,” exclaimed a fellow senior “Getting paid to get an education!” It seemed incredible to us.  That the salary was maybe just enough to live on, probably while dipping into some savings or a loan, hardly seemed a problem.  Grad school was only a way station, not a destination.

And yet today there are graduate students at Yale engaged in a hunger strike to get that university to recognize their union, which was formed to increase wages and benefits. What gives?

It would be easy to brush this off as entitled students demanding a full wage while getting a free education or to vilify universities as sweat-shop employers (which is the point of view of the linked op-ed). The fact is, higher-ed has been jammed into an uncomfortable spot for number of reasons and the result, not surprisingly, is inequity. The answer might be a bit of a shock. [None of this is to defend Yale’s refusal to negotiate, which in a way is contrary to academia’s predilection to talk. At length. Not act, but talk.]

[But before moving on to the big picture, a gripe. The author of the op-ed, a history professor, contends that the appropriate job market for PhD history or English students is a professorship and, noting that there are more graduates than positions, infers that these students are destined for careers as adjunct faculty. If this professor’s instruction is so narrow that all her students can do with a PhD is teach history, then she should do what a Princeton professor once stated: I’ve trained my replacement, now I’m done. GG has groused about this blinkered view of the utility of a PhD before.]

Let’s start with something simple.  Tear apart the dual roles of student and instructor for a moment (this is a mistake, which we will come back to). Some graduate programs require you to pay out of pocket (think medical school, many engineering programs). So full freight is that kind of gruesome $50,000 a year or so. Now, what pay is appropriate for a pre-PhD instructor? Most schools have a crudely linear relation between years since PhD and salary; you could imagine projecting back to negative years since PhD. Odds are that you are going to land somewhere in the $60,000-$80,000/year range, but it is hard to know at a private school like Yale (could be higher). If you subtract the tuition, you are left with starvation salaries perhaps as low as $10,000–or something more livable. (Note that this will favor economically privileged students, which is an issue here too.)

OK, so it is a better deal than waitressing while paying full tuition. But is it fair?

The flip side of this is the perspective from the folks paying to sit in classrooms where the instructor is a graduate student.  The level of instruction in such classes is wildly uneven: some grad students might have so much teaching experience and like it enough that they are some of the best instructors on campus.  Others just got their bachelors and have little in the way of teaching ability or inclination. Yale’s argument that TAs are apprentices has merit–but by the same token, this lessens Yale’s claim of providing a first-rate education. A grad student instructor breeds a lot of anger among parents, who figure that they are paying somewhere in the vicinity of $5,000 for that class.  If it is a 20 person class, that grad student is in some ways responsible for $100,000 of income to the university–and she or he might well be teaching two or four such sections a year. Much as university athletes complain that they don’t see a fair share of the pie from TV contracts, TAs might argue in those circumstances that they are being cut out as well.

The question parents ask in these situations is, why aren’t the professors in the classroom? And the answer is, there aren’t enough professors.  The cost to the university by adding a full tenured professor is substantial, so while they were pursuing more students, they took to adding more instructors and loosening rules on who could teach. You could argue that professors are overpaid and underworked, and there might be truth to that. It could be that the problem lies in more subtle places.

Professors at major universities granting graduate degrees are expected to have graduate students. And to conduct research.  So if you increase the number of professors, you increase the number of graduate students, and if the policy in a department is to financially support those students…well, you can start to see problems. When given enough money to pay 10 students a good wage or 12 an OK wage, faculty will hate to put somebody out in the cold.

Solutions? An obvious one is to increase tuition enough to cover paying teaching assistants and non-tenure track faculty better.  Given the hue and cry over student debt and the rising cost of college, that is a non-starter.

Another possibility is to rejigger the relative pay of faculty versus students and instructors (CU is actually trying that this year, giving grad students a 5% pay raise while faculty will get an average of 2.2%). In some places this makes sense; in others, not so much.

You could increase class sizes and thus reduce the number of TAs needed, allowing that same income to be distributed at a greater amount per TA. This will leave some students out in the cold. But class size is a major indicator of the quality of instruction (thanks, US News and World Report), so don’t look to see administrators give that a big thumbs up.

You could simply abandon the teaching assistant based approach for supporting graduate students and take that money and hire some more faculty. Of course then you would see the graduate programs that don’t lead to good jobs dry up–which might free up some faculty to teach more undergrad courses, which might lead to fewer TAs and instructors….

A more controversial way out is to cut back the graduate programs in some fields. If, as the author of the NY Times piece suggests, all a history PhD is good for is being a history professor, then let’s turn down the number of PhD’s being trained (again, GG disagrees with that premise). You could similarly turn down the research production expected of faculty and maybe up their course load a bit.  This might even turn down the heat that has produced academic fraud at what feels like a record pace. The problem is that this will be seen as a dilution of academic strength, and for some faculty, it would be a deal killer.  In some cases, academic contracts specify the kind of workload a faculty member undertakes, so this might be the start of a long road where new faculty come in with new expectations.

Taken to the extreme, all graduate programs could rely on direct payment, just like medical schools. Want a PhD in history? Feel free to fill out the loan papers and get to work.  A lot of graduate degree programs would probably fall out of accreditation in a situation like that.

What might be the most innovative solution?  Let the students’ union sit down with the university and have the university lay all the cards on the table–where money comes from and where it goes. And then, well, you know, have a fact-based academic discussion.

Who knows, maybe the students will find an out the administrators have missed.

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