PW special report: Low pay, high cost of living are sending UNC System grad students to food pantries

By: - May 11, 2022 6:00 am
a box of basic food staples

U.S. House Republicans are advancing a proposal to erect higher barriers to food assistance. (Photo: Adobe Stock)

NC grad students are increasingly turning to food pantries to make ends meet. (Photo: Adobe Stock)

Folasewa Olatunde didn’t want to go to the dentist. But sharp pain and inflammation in her mouth told her she should. The dentist told her she needed to have a molar removed and some cavities filled. The cost: more than $3,000.

“For me that’s over two months’ of pay,” she said. “So I’m just living with it, living with the pain.”

Olatunde, a native of Nigeria, is an international student getting her doctorate in Communication, Rhetoric and Digital Media at N.C. State University. She teaches classes at the school as part of her grad program. She’s living on a school stipend of less than $1,400 a month, after taxes. “And that’s just for nine months out of the year,” Olatunde said. “Student fees are $1,300 a semester, so really that’s like two months of your pay right there. In the summer you’re just looking for anything to get by.”

In Raleigh, where studies show rents have gone up more than 20% in the last year, it’s hard for Olatunde to make rent, even with a roommate.

Like a lot of N.C. State students, Olatunde has been using the campus food pantry as she tries to make ends meet.

The grad program at N.C. State was an enormous opportunity, Olatunde said. No program like it exists in Nigeria, where she earned her first two degrees. But she has no family in North Carolina or anywhere in the United States; the financial realities of being a graduate student here have been more difficult than she imagined. “It can be really stressful, figuring out how you’re going to pay for things, budgeting to the last,” Olatunde said. “The food pantry is good, but they can only provide as much as they can provide. There is a lot of demand.”

Olatunde’s situation is emblematic of a growing problem, said Mike Giancola, assistant vice provost and student ombudsperson at N.C. State. “We have seen significantly more usage at the food pantry and significantly more food insecurity among students — grad students and undergrads — in the last two years,” Giancola said. “We are doing what we can through programs like the pantry and our Pack Essentials program which provides further assistance, but we know it’s not enough.”

The majority of graduate students don’t receive stipends from their universities at all, Giancola said. Those who do — primarily students pursuing PhDs — get them because they’re expected to devote most of their time to their studies and to their work as teaching or research assistants. “That leaves very few hours for an extra job to help cover expenses, even for the students who can do that,” Giancola said.

Many international students face an even greater challenges in that they are in the country under study visas that don’t allow them to take on work unrelated to their studies. “For students who are here on study visas, they are supposed to be able to show they can cover their expenses while studying here,” Giancola said. “But that doesn’t take into account a lot of things — the pandemic, of course, but also inflation and the increased cost of living, rents going up 20 to 25 percent in the last year.”

Stipends for graduate students vary widely by university and programs within those universities’ schools. Minimum annual stipends range from $7,000 to $18,000. The money doesn’t approach the actual cost of living — especially in cities like Raleigh, Durham, Greensboro and Chapel Hill, home to some of the UNC system’s largest universities. “Obviously, it’s not keeping pace with what it actually costs to live in these places,” Giancola said. “You have to look at the total package that a graduate program covers and what it doesn’t cover — tuition, fees, books. But you also have to look at what it costs to live — rent, utilities, transportation, food.”

N.C. State psychology professor Mary Haskett

Food and housing insecurity is a problem among students across the UNC system. People are often surprised that the levels are so high among graduate students, said Mary Haskett, a psychology professor at N.C. State and co-chair of the NC State Steering Committee on Student Food and Housing Security.

The assumption is often that graduate students are older and therefore more secure, Haskett said. The research doesn’t support that. The most recent study on food insecurity and homelessness among N.C. State students found the highest level of homelessness in the past six months was among those pursuing a master’s degree (18.3%). Reported food insecurity was also highest among Master’s (27.2%) and PhD students (19.8%).

“That makes sense when you think about it,” Haksett said. “If families can help with expenses, they often can help in the first four years. After that, family resources are limited. So often times students who are moving on to graduate school, students are picking up those expenses on their own. And masters students often don’t have access to [stipends for teaching and research] that doctoral students do.”

A problem everywhere

The problem goes well beyond N.C. State.

Over the last month, Policy Watch also spoke with more than a dozen graduate students in various programs at N.C. State, UNC-Chapel Hill, UNC-Greensboro, N.C. A&T, Western Carolina University, N.C. Central and East Carolina University.

While some were reluctant to share their own stories on the record, most described similar struggles: going hungry, seeking food at university or local food pantries, receiving public assistance, abandoning houses or apartments they can no longer afford, leaving school for a year or more, or completely abandoning their graduate studies because of costs.

UNC-Chapel Hill graduate student Devin Case-Ruchala

“My first two years of grad school I lived with nine people,” said Devin Case-Ruchala, a graduate student in the last year of a PhD program in political science at UNC-Chapel Hill. “Then I moved to a studio apartment closer to campus, about 150 square feet. There was mold on the walls, a lot of problems.”

Now Case-Ruchala lives in Alamance County, about 30 minutes from campus. That’s a lot more affordable, they said, but not an option for every student.

“If you want to move that far from your campus because of the rents, you have to be able to have a car, car insurance, to pay for gas,” Case-Ruchala said. “Not everyone can do that, especially international students or anyone who is struggling with basic costs.”

Last week, a graduate student at N.C. A&T told Policy Watch he left his apartment in Greensboro for one in Burlington because his rent went up 20% after a similar hike two years ago. The student, who asked not to be named because of concerns his comments would reflect poorly on university and his program, said a round-trip drive of more than an hour is disruptive and expensive itself, particularly with the current high gas prices. But continuing to live in Greensboro had become unsustainable on a stipend of a little over $12,000 a year, even with two roommates.

“It’s not the fault of the department or the chair or the graduate advisors, who don’t like it either,” he told Policy Watch. “We’re not really supposed to take on work outside our program, that’s the agreement or the expectation — but a lot of people are delivering food or doing Uber driving or finding some side hustle anyway, because you definitely can’t live on what they pay you to teach and study.”

“You can be teaching undergrads and then delivering for GoPuff and the door opens, and there’s the student you had in class that day,” he said. “That’s just how it is. You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.”

As an undergraduate, Case-Ruchala was a business major. As a political scientist, they’ve been working to understand both the business and political issues that make underpaying graduate students a persistent and growing problem.

“When we talk about graduate funding we’re talking about paying graduate students to work as teaching assistants, as instructors to undergrads, not just to do research,” Case-Ruchala said. “We’re producing that value to the university, putting more undergraduates into seats at universities, which is the core business. If people can’t afford to stay in these programs and keep teaching those classes, at some point that becomes a huge problem.”

It’s also a problem both for recruiting and retaining top graduate students at UNC System schools and making sure that students who come from more modest backgrounds or families without a tradition of higher education can pursue graduate school.

Case-Ruchala is working with other graduate students to quantify the problem and advocate for a solution, but the work has been frustrating.

“As conversations about this have happened over the years, I’ve been constantly dissatisfied with the answers,” Case-Ruchala said. “Whether it’s the dean, the provost, the chancellor, department chairs, the problem is always someone else’s problem. And as we’ve worked as grad students to talk with state level representatives, there’s also a lack of awareness as to how this even works.”

“What gets measured gets managed”

A key problem in discussing the struggles of underfunded graduate programs and underpaid students: there is no one way that it works and it’s no one person, institution or group’s responsibility.

The UNC System does not determine graduate stipend levels at the university level. Neither do individual universities. Because of funding models — sources include federal money, grants from nonprofits, donations from the private sector or wealthy alumni — stipends can vary widely, even within disciplines or departments at a single university.

A recent study by grad students found that at UNC-Chapel Hill the minimum graduate stipend is $17,000 a year — less than half the cost of living in Orange County. But it’s dramatically lower at other schools in the system — around $9,000 at ECU and as low as $7,000 at UNC-Greensboro and UNC-Charlotte.

“My department is fortunate in that it has a private donor, an alum who went into the private sector who is able to provide some funding to compete with other programs,” Case-Ruchala said. “The fact that I even accepted at UNC had a lot to do with the fact my department could guarantee pay in the summer, which is not part of the base stipend.”

The minimum base stipend at UNC-Chapel Hill is higher than most schools in the system, but the graduate student study shows it is still significantly lower than stipends at many of the universities UNC-Chapel Hill considers its peer institutions. At the University of Virginia it is $30,000 a year. At the University of Wisconsin at Madison it is $20,500. At the University of Pennsylvania it is $26,800.

A graduate student at ECU, who also asked not to be named, told Policy Watch she is lucky to be in a program in the hard sciences, which tend to be better funded.

“Whether it’s NIH [National Institutes of Health] money or it’s money from pharmaceutical companies, the money for pay in these programs is better if you are working on bio-med or you’re figuring out a way to separate oil from water after a spill, something people think they can monetize and make a profit from,” she said. “If you’re being paid to teach and do research and they think a new pill is going to come out of it, then you’re probably going to be able to live on the stipend your program can afford to provide. If you’re studying something in the social sciences or the humanities, it’s very different.”

UNC Graduate and Professional Student Government president Theodore Nollert

That’s true, said Theodore Nollert. In addition to pursuing a PhD in English and Comparative Literature at UNC-Chapel Hill, Nollert is president of the UNC Graduate and Professional Student Government.

Whatever the area of study, Nollert said, understanding the scope of what graduate students are struggling with is difficult because neither the system nor the individual universities are adequately measuring the situation to put it into proper context. Money from the state doesn’t come to the university primarily as line-items, Nollert said. It comes as a lump sum that is then divvied up by departments and deans who are also working with other, diverse streams of funding from outside government.

“What that means for us realistically is at the universities, nobody has a full picture of all our revenue streams, what our commitments are and where they’re going,” Nollert said. “So that’s something I’m working on this year. Six months to a year from now we’re going to have the numbers on this, one way or another.”

In order to be persuasive to university and system administrators and the legislature, Nollert said, students have to speak not just the language of equity and justice for graduate students who provide essential labor to the university. They have to make an effective economic argument.

“At the legislature they say education is still the largest part of the state budget,” Nollert said. “So they want you to show them how paying graduate students more, paying them a living wage, is going to be an economic driver for the state. Is this a job pipeline for the state?”

The argument becomes easier, Nollert said, if students can demonstrate the UNC System, whose universities are economic drivers for their local economies and the state, is being beaten out by systems in other states in recruiting and keeping top grad students and building top-level programs across disciplines. The available data suggest that, Nollert said.

“It’s not to anyone’s benefit to have a patchwork system of doing this that no one really understands or can follow, for all these different departments and disciplines, that can work differently at every university,” Nollert said. “That’s something that isn’t measured or managed.”

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Joe Killian
Joe Killian

Investigative Reporter Joe Killian's work examines government, politics and policy, with a special emphasis on higher education, LGBTQ issues and extremism.