Student Debt: Graduate students are finding that the world of academia is shutting them out

Lifestyle expenses? Some students have to make a choice between technology for school and basic necessities.

Rally Against Student Debt

UI Pentacrest — Wednesday, Oct. 22 at 12 p.m.

Denied for student requirement.” This is what a teaching assistant at the University of Iowa, who prefers to remain unnamed, was informed by the Iowa Department of Human Services (DHS) in the spring of 2012 when her request for renewed food assistance was denied.

The teaching assistant says she was confused by her new ineligibility because nothing changed in her employment status or income level. Around the same time, Michaela Frischherz, who is a graduate student in Communication Studies at the University of Iowa, was also denied continued assistance because of the “student requirement.” For these students and many others, public assistance ineligibility only compounds the financial insecurity already caused by low wages, rising student fees and high cost of living in Johnson County

The Public Information Officer for the Iowa DHS, Amy McCoy, explains that students have specific requirements in addition to meeting the same eligibility criteria as other applicants for assistance. Although there are a number of ways students can gain eligibility for assistance, one of the most common is by working 20 hours per week.

Graduate employees at the University of Iowa with half-time appointments meet this special 20-hours-a-week requirement, in addition to the general requirement that household income be less than 160 percent of the federal poverty level of $11,670 (for single adults). Based on these numbers alone, many graduate students at the university are eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition and Assistance Program (SNAP). So why are students being denied eligibility?

McCoy could not speak to specific cases, but suggests it probably has something to do with other federal requirements set by the Food and Nutrition Service, which funds SNAP. Attempts to get specific case information were unsuccessful and often lead to phone transfers to supervisors or the suggestion to file an appeal. But Sarah Benson Witry, the Food Bank and Emergency Assistance Director at The Crisis Center of Johnson County, suggests another explanation: “Many students do not qualify for state or county programs because the assumption is that people can get loans.” And that’s exactly what many graduate students have to do.

Recent data from the U.S. Department of Education shows that 40 percent of the total student debt load is held by graduate students. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported in March of 2014 that for two-thirds of graduate students, the average debt burden is $60,000. Additionally, National Science Foundation data indicates that the average amount of debt carried by doctoral students, specifically, has increased by 70 percent over the last decade.

Despite earning money through a teaching stipend and public assistance, Benjamin Burroughs, a graduate employee in Communication Studies, still carries student debt. Burroughs supports three children on his salary, which is almost $23,000 less than the Iowa Policy Project’s $40,959 estimate for the average cost of living in Johnson County (for one working parent, one non-working parent and two children).

“My family is on Medicaid. We get WIC; if we didn’t have WIC we couldn’t afford baby food,” said Burroughs about living in Johnson County. “Since we have three kids, we still get SNAP, but we’ve almost been cut off from it. Everything we own is hand-me-down stuff.”

Those who do not qualify for the programs Burrough’s family receives may rely on the food bank. Benson Witry says that many students, both graduate and undergraduate, use the food bank, especially ones with small children.

“Usually, one parent can’t work full time because childcare is expensive and the stipend isn’t enough,” said Benson Witry. “A lot more students are struggling than people realize.”

In fact, Johnson County actually has a higher rate of food insecurity than Iowa in general, with 14.2 percent of county citizens categorized as food insecure according to Feeding America. Benson Witry thinks that a portion of this number is likely due to student transitions and the high cost of living in Iowa City.

In addition to relying on public assistance, Burroughs says he had to take on an extra writing job just to pay off his student fees every year. Since the 2010-2011 academic year, student fees at the University of Iowa have increased by nearly 500 percent for full time graduate students, going from $188 to $966 for this academic year. And if you’re an international student? Add an additional $260 to your university bill.

Recently, University of Iowa President Sally Mason commented on increasing student debt during a Sept. 24 forum with the College of Education, asserting that at least half of student debt is “lifestyle debt” caused by students buying things like iPhones, iPads and laptops. Burroughs was particularly offended by these comments given his frugal behavior and financial situation.

“They dump operating costs on us and then belittle us, saying we are in this situation because we want to have iPads and things,” said Burroughs. “No, I don’t have an iPad. I don’t have cable. I don’t even have a flat screen TV. I don’t say this to moan, whine or complain, but there is a reality that [Sally Mason] doesn’t understand in those comments.”

Rachel Walerstein, a graduate student in the Department of English and teaching assistant in the Department of Rhetoric, also disagrees with Mason’s assumptions about student debt. Paying university fees, travel expenses for professional conferences and going home to visit her family in New York uses up a lot of her stipend.

“Lifestyle implies having a life,” said Walerstein. “I, unfortunately, have only the crippling anxiety that comes with deciding to go home for the holidays or staying in Iowa in order to afford conference travel.”

In the past, many of the financial insecurities and debts faced by graduate students were seen as investments in their futures. But now, Burroughs says, “Our earning potential is no longer high, and our futures are no longer as secure as they once were, even if we do get a tenure track job.”

Benson Witry echoed a similar sentiment. “People used to say that taking out loans is okay because ‘I’ll get a good paying job and pay them off,’ but that equation doesn’t work anymore.”

The current state of higher education, where many graduate students hope to end up as teachers and researchers, supports these claims. According to the American Association of University Professors’ Economic Status Report for 2012-2013, three quarters of all university professors are adjunct professors, who are considered part-time, “at will” laborers that make considerably less than tenure-track faculty. Currently, non-tenure track positions make up 47 percent of all faculty positions at the University of Iowa. This broad reliance on underpaid adjunct labor extends the financial insecurities of graduate school throughout students’ post-degree earning lives, evidenced by the number of Ph.D.’s receiving food assistance tripling from 2007-2010.

Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter said at their most recent meeting that Iowa universities need more state support. To hold Rastetter to his statement, and to show the regents, Mason and university administrators that Iowa students need more support, several groups across campus are holding a Rally Against Student Debt on Oct. 22 during the board’s budgetary meeting for the upcoming academic year. Organizers for the rally, which includes members of COGS and the Graduate Student Senate as well as students from across academic departments on campus, believe that the best way to start fighting the widespread impact of student debt is through students themselves coming together and asking the Board of Regents to advocate on their behalf with Iowa legislators.

Until the financial burden of graduate students can be mitigated more broadly at the state and university levels, individuals can always rely on the food bank at the Crisis Center of Johnson County for help. According to Benson Witry, “The Crisis Center welcomes anyone in need of assistance who lives in Johnson County regardless of student status.” 

Melissa Zimdars wants you all to attend the Rally Against Student Debt on Oct. 22 at noon on the Pentacrest.

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