istory graduate student Andrea Schwab and about 40 other graduate students are planning to attend this Saturday’s homecoming football game — but they don’t intend on watching the game.
Graduate student stipends — which serve as pay to teach or do research — haven’t been raised in over a decade and students are planning to use the game to protest.
“We wanted to be professional,” says Schwab, who sees herself as a mediator between the students and administration. She partly heads the campaign, named #FAUStarvingGrads. The group of FAU graduate students — who have garnered over 400 signatures on an online petition to raise stipends — plan to gain more at the Homecoming game.
“There are very angry graduate students here,” Schwab said.
There are about 5,000 graduate students at FAU, most of whom depend on the money paid to them by the school to survive. Of these, every master’s student’s stipend is below the Federal Poverty Level, which is measured by the Department of Health and Human Services as any salary under $11,880 per year.
The average stipend for masters students at FAU is $8,463.35, and for doctoral students it is $14,796.36. The FAU stipends are calculated per nine months.
Department chairs and deans have known about this problem for years and have proposed business plans and solutions on both levels. The students have proposed plans as well but feel unheard, ignored, and still can’t meet ends meet.
Gary Perry, a Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs, said they can’t find the money to make the change even though it makes FAU less competitive compared to other universities.
According to Perry, the problem is fickle funding, the money can change year to year. “The money can go away,” he said. “So what we have to do is come up with a plan, say okay we are going to use some of this money to help this situation today but what happens when the money goes away tomorrow?”
Perry spoke in reference to FAU losing $7 million in funding from the state two years ago because it did not meet state demanded university metrics — which helps determine how much funding a university can potentially receive. Not meeting metrics means cut funding. In this case, they didn’t have enough bachelor’s graduates getting jobs one year after graduating, nor enough “Graduate Degrees Awarded in Areas of Strategic Emphasis.”
“The issue with that money you know…is [it’s] not what we call recurring. It doesn’t go into the base of the university,” he said.
On April 10, a draft of “Dean’s’ Priorities” stated, “The FAU deans are united in support of the following priorities for funding,” of which one was raising graduate stipends and other benefits. The cost of those additions was listed as $5,057,000 according to the document.
According to Perry, it’s up to President Kelly and himself to make the final decision.
Notes from a meeting held on Nov. 11, 2013 between the University Graduate Council, FAU President John Kelly and Perry state that, “During the discussion with the committee, it was noted that for FAU to move beyond regional university status, an investment in graduate programs, students and support is imperative or FAU will simply fail to be competitive.”
“Graduate student stipends and recruitment packages are not competitive,” the notes from the meeting said. “Virtually every program at FAU is losing top candidates every year as a result of not being competitive [in terms of funding and stipends]. If FAU wants to increase the number of full-time students in master’s and doctoral programs, the number graduate assistantship opportunities must be increased.”
Mathematics doctoral student Brandon Langenberg who has been with the FAU Starving Grads since its inception seven months ago, said he has made back and forth contact with administration but received no satisfactory answer to the lack funding.
“Dr. Floyd [the dean of the graduate college] kept trying to get us to apply for the Three Minute Thesis and other scholarships,” Langenberg says. “It’s $500, but we are asking for an increase of $10,000 for every student.”
According to Langenberg, the purpose of the stipend is to cover relative expenses for the student so they can focus solely on their research and classes. But at FAU, graduate students have to use this money to cover tuition fees, the cost of travel to present their research at conferences, and the cost of health insurance because the school does not. That comes on top of the cost of daily commuting, rent, food and possibly the cost of supporting a family.
According to FAU’s website, “Student fees and health insurance benefits are not included.” At most universities, tuition and other fees, travelling and insurance is paid for outside of the stipend.
Several Florida state schools including Florida International University, Florida State University, University of Central Florida, University of Florida, and University of South Florida, cover at least 75% of health insurance. FAU covers none. According to Perry, increasing stipends will be first, not insurance.
“If we can increase stipends and I don’t know how much, but, you then have the choice and you can go buy health care if you need it, if you don’t well okay,” he said.
Several students have said they don’t have many options at the moment though.
“I just wish FAU would pay a little more so I don’t have to take out $200,000 in loans living in expensive Boca Raton,” Schwab said.
Schwab says the administration puts pressure to not work outside jobs which could help soothe this situation in both her and Langenberg’s cases, calling it “indirect intimidation.”
There’s no clear indication that the alleged policy exists. An anonymous department chair could not say for a fact if it was legitimate, and neither could Perry when asked.
“Well, technically I’m not sure there is a policy issue,” he said, but added “we certainly don’t like our Ph.D students working outside.”
When asked again if there was a rule against outside work for students in the program, Perry said “I think it varies for place to place, and the enforcement varies from place to place.”
Without a possible outside job, students say they can’t pay for rent, travel, food, insurance and class fees.
“I’d rather have my graduate students spending as much time in my labs working on research and ultimately their career than having to go work at McDonalds. That’s just not constructive,” Perry said.
Andrew Fraieli is the managing editor of the University Press. For information regarding this or other stories, email him at [email protected]