As an instructor of English 105: Writing & Rhetoric, Nicole L. Lowman teaches undergraduate students college-level writing and critical thinking skills.
Thousands of University at Buffalo freshmen each year are required to take the four-credit introductory course, which is taught by dozens of graduate students like Lowman. Those who do well in the course tend to graduate on time.
The UB English department paid Lowman a stipend of $14,180 to teach the class in the fall and spring semesters. It wasn't nearly enough to pay rent, utilities, food and other costs. So Lowman shared her Buffalo apartment with a roommate and worked a variety of odd jobs to make ends meet, even as she was studying and researching full time as a UB doctoral student. Some graduate students with stipends have had to take out loans just to get by. Others left the doctoral program because they couldn't afford it anymore.
Lowman and many of her fellow teaching assistants at UB say it shouldn't be that way. They're now banding together in a push to increase stipend amounts and lower the fees that the university charges graduate students.
"We're mission-critical teachers," said Lowman. "I made more money working at Barnes & Noble."
Lowman is helping lead a campaign for a "living stipend" for the university's more than 1,400 graduate teaching and research assistants.
Teaching assistants and some full-time faculty members plan to demonstrate with a march across campus Monday that will conclude in Capen Hall, where they will hand to university administrators a petition signed by more than 750 people urging UB President Satish K. Tripathi to boost stipend rates.
A minimum living stipend for UB teaching assistants would be around $21,300, given the cost of living in the Buffalo area for a single adult, according to a living wage calculator developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The average doctoral student stipend at UB was $17,343 in 2016-17, and stipends ranged from $9,385 to $32,000, according to university officials. Engineering and the physical sciences tended to have the largest stipends, while the social sciences and humanities had the smallest. UB's stipend average for all disciplines was 12th highest among 23 public universities in the Association of American Universities, a peer group of intensive research universities.
"We invest a high amount in our doctoral students and the numbers are increasing," said Graham L. Hammill, vice provost for graduate education and dean of the Graduate School at UB. In addition to stipends, funding packages for doctoral students include full tuition waivers and health care benefits. The total investment per student, on average, was $37,684 in 2016-17.
UB paid about $15.5 million in tuition on behalf of its doctoral students to the State University of New York, up from $10.5 million four years ago. The university's stipend outlay also grew by $2.4 million to nearly $25 million during that time.
Hammill said the idea of a minimum living stipend isn't feasible. The funding doctoral students receive is "really to advance their education," he said. "They don't get funding exactly to return a service."
"They're not hired as employees," he added. "They're made offers as students."
In the long run, people with doctoral degrees get a tremendous return on their investment: lifetime earnings that are 72 percent greater, on average, than the earnings of people with bachelor's degrees, he said.
Nonetheless, Hammill acknowledged that some doctoral students may be struggling financially. It was incumbent upon individual departments within the university to do more to help those students, he said.
Stipend amounts are determined at the department level. "In some places, we're extremely competitive. In other areas, we're not competitive," said Hammill.
Departments receive money from the university's overall base budget and must make difficult choices about how that money gets spent. In some cases, departments might need to be engaged in a broader conversation about right-sizing their doctoral programs, particularly in disciplines where fewer academic jobs are available, he added. Some departments might be better off accepting fewer students and paying them higher stipends, said Hammill.
Doctoral students in UB's English department know the job outlook is not good for them.
"I've taught for 10 years. I seem to get paid less every year. It's a bad market," said Joseph Hall. Hall expects to complete and defend his dissertation later this year, but he's not sure what that will get him. "It's becoming very clear that there's no guarantee you'll get a good teaching job, or even a bad one," he said.
Hall considers himself lucky, though. He won a dissertation fellowship this year. He gave up his stipend so he wouldn't have to spend so much time teaching and could focus on writing and defending his dissertation. To make some extra money, he's administering placement tests for Erie Community College, and earning more on an hourly basis than he would teaching freshmen at UB. "It made sense to not teach for UB because I was being paid so little," he said. "I want to teach. It just didn't make sense."
Hall and others contend that low stipend rates slow graduate students' progress to completing their degrees and ultimately compromise their ability to compete for the few academic jobs out there. And some English faculty worry that low stipends are beginning to affect the department's ability to attract the best doctoral students. The university's Faculty Senate is examining the issue of stipends but has yet to weigh in.
Some graduate students said escalating fees at UB contributed to the growing gap between stipends and the costs of living. UB graduate students now pay more than $2,500 in fees, which are not covered by the tuition waiver.
Graduate students say they're supposed to put in no more than 20 hours per week teaching a course, but usually it ends up being more than that. Grading one essay assignment for 21 students in her writing class takes at least seven hours, said Lowman. And then there's classroom time, office hours, student conferences, mapping out syllabi, and creating lesson plans, as many as three times per week. With the required graduate student fees she paid to UB, Lowman estimates she brought home $1,100 per month.
"There's no will to address this question," said Ana Grujic. "There is a systemic lack of interest in how students and graduate students live." Grujic recently completed her dissertation and remains active in efforts to improve graduate student pay.
Grujic, Lowman and Hall know they won't realize the benefits of their advocacy, but they said they hope it results in better stipends for other graduate students. The issue is as much about the value of education as it is fairness, said Lowman.