Jamie Blake, a graduate student in the UNC Department of Music from 2014-2022, said there was never money to save during her time in graduate school.
Blake and her husband — also a graduate student on a stipend — had two daughters while they were students. All their money went to living expenses or daycare, she said.
“I actually don’t think a single parent would be able to do it,” she said. “The only reason we were able to maintain daycare is because we had some local funding help.”
At UNC, the minimum graduate student stipend only covers approximately 68.5 percent of the University’s cost of attendance, a recent study by the Graduate and Professional Student Federation found.
Excluding tuition, fees and health insurance, the University estimates that it costs $24,828 to attend graduate school at UNC this year.
In order to receive a service stipend, graduate students must assist with teaching, research or other academic work within the University. The current stipend for graduate students is $17,000 for a full academic year — which is $7,828 less than the overall cost of attendance.
The stipend was $15,700 in 2014 and was raised to $17,000 this year.
When her four-month-old daughter needed emergency surgery, Blake said she didn’t know what to do.
“I found applying for emergency aid at the University level to be humiliating,” she said.
Blake said that, at the time she was seeking emergency aid, the University asked questions that felt were invasive and designed to make one “opt out of finishing the application.”
A personal emergency like a health crisis, loss of transportation and housing, or other situations could make a graduate student unable to afford to survive in Chapel Hill another semester, Blake said.
“I think the most difficult part is that it really puts you right on the edge,” Brendan Chambers, a PhD candidate in the Department of English, said.
Chambers said the stipend basically requires students to either scrape by with the bare minimum or try to make ends meet through adding extra work. He added that he has taught three or four extra classes and tutored to supplement the stipend.
“There’s a very clear correlation between how much we’re paid and the quality of undergraduate learning at UNC,” he said.
Theodore Nollert, president of the GPSG, has been working to increase graduate funding for three years.
With the help of Chambers, the two have concluded through internal calculations, that UNC ranks seventh out of 15 peer institutions in graduate student payments relative to the cost of attendance to each university.
“The genesis is that it gets more and more expensive to live here,” Nollert said. “The stipend isn’t keeping up.”
Graduate students can either receive a nine-month or 12-month stipend for the academic year.
The 12-month stipend is aided by a National Science Foundation (NSF grant). These grants are much easier to come by in health science departments, Evelyne Huber, director of Graduate Studies in political science, said. She added that most social sciences and humanities departments are at a particular disadvantage because they receive fewer grants.
Huber said many graduate students work during the summer to supplement their stipend. Summer jobs cost graduate students time for research and could delay their graduation or ability to publish.
The stipend can be especially hard to live off in some departments that operate on a nine-month schedule, Chambers said.
Evelyn Huber said that, in the 30 years she has been at UNC, graduate student stipends have been a major concern of the political science department and many others.
“We know from faculty that they are regularly losing students in recruitment to institutions that can pay more where it’s cheaper to live,” Nollert said.
A graduate student receiving offers from both UNC and the University of Virginia might be more likely to take the offer from UVA, whose minimum stipend is more — even if they’re interested in UNC’s program more, Chambers said.
UVA ranks first out of 15 peer institutions for minimum stipend, covering 109 percent of the cost of attendance with their minimum stipend. They rank fifth in minimum stipend as a percent of 9-month cost of living, covering 90.8 percent.
“We’re losing our, you know, top applicants to other programs,” Misha Becker, chairperson of the Linguistics Department, said at the Faculty Executive Meeting on Sept. 1.
Increasing the stipend
Nollert proposed two plausible options for raising the stipend. Either the state government decides to write a larger check to the University, he said, or some other campus population loses funding for the graduate program to receive more money.
“The legislature in Raleigh has systematically reduced the amount of support they give to this University,” Huber said.
She also said that the University could raise tuition. In-state tuition has remained at $7,019 since 2017, and out-of-state tuition was increased by $680 in February 2022.
“We are living in a world of trade-offs,” Huber said.
Nollert said that Nate Knuffman, vice chancellor for finance and operations and chief financial officer, is in the process of preparing an All-Funds budget report.
“Until we have that budget, the best I can do is present the data and say ‘we need more’,” Nollert said.
Waiting on this budget, Chambers said another step in his research will be working with the urban planning department to develop an economic impact report. He said this report will demonstrate how graduate students are underpaid, yet generate an enormous amount of value for the state.
Chambers also said he and his colleagues plan to advocate in the North Carolina General Assembly this spring for more University funding to go toward graduate student stipends.
“What you spend on is what you value,” Nollert said.