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It boggles my mind that in the US, after one received a BA/BS, one no longer qualifies for the Pell Grant. Second, the Pell Grant hasn’t really increased much relative to the average cost of college tuition. All these idealistic talks about free or affordable college education by our politicians often overlook the pragmatic solution of extending and expanding current grants for higher education. A lot of what we have are good, but rarely do we (want to) talk about the pragmatic solution of tweaking and improving them.

Even if we have free higher education in the future, it may only cover public universities and not private ones. There are slightly more private universities than public ones in the US. So, prudentially, low-income students would have to narrow their choices to mostly or only public universities, then. However, there’s also the issue of whether or not “free college education” applies across state borders since it’s possible students may still have to pay “out of state” fees.

Our political system here in the US with our matrixed checks-and-balances that grants states certain discretion and rights, can make even “free college education” here not so free.

Alex B.

Brilliant post Rosa and Anna, thank you so much for writing this.


I suspect high income students also leave. Why put yourself through the trauma of the horrible job market and the poor way PhDs are treated if you're rich? I guess maybe you could just pay someone to apply for jobs for you, but you wouldn't really need the job. So... I suspect people who are rich don't bother with the whole thing. I wouldn't. You can write philosophy, if that's your passion, without having to work at a university.

barely survived grad school

Thank you for this post. I am really glad that we are talking about this.

I had a really rough go of it financially in grad school. I had to live in terrible, packed living conditions in an expensive city, rode my bike eight miles to and from campus because I couldn't even afford public transit, worked a side job or two (depending on the year), had weeks in which I ate literally nothing but canned tomatoes and rice, and developed health conditions like dizziness presumably from malnutrition and stress. It was very strange to watch my peers rent their own large apartments, not take side jobs, and eat takeout food all the time. (I mention all this not because I want sympathy, but only because I've never really had the opportunity to talk about it in a professional context and am glad now to have it.)

Needless to say, this is all very bad, and it speaks to the capitalistic ideology underlying grad school and academia: work hard, compromise health and absolutely everything else, and maybe, just maybe, your "natural talent" (whatever that means) will shine through and you'll be one of the winners.

Martin Cooke

Just to play devil's advocate:

University courses, especially literature (rather than science) courses, tend to be for richer children anyway, so I wonder if there is much wrong with the teaching staff reflecting that bias?

And while there is a lot to be said for facilitating the studies of the brightest of the academically inclined but economically poorer students (e.g. it puts brains into the ruling class, where they can help everyone, it being the ruling class), that just needs grants to be available.

Just FYI

As long as this website encourages comments like those from Martin Cooke it will never be a very great space for the people you’re trying to help.

Just FYI

Daniel Weltman

One converse point in the "teaching" category - if there is extra teaching available in the summer, this can be a source of income which is also philosophically and professionally helpful, versus having to get another job unrelated to academia. But, there is often not enough summer teaching for everyone who might want it. When I was a grad student at UCSD, the department was pretty great about trying to make summer teaching slots for grad students, but I heard from grad students in other departments at the university that all the summer courses would be taught by professors looking to earn more money to redo their kitchen or whatever, leaving the grad students high and dry. So, even if teaching is poorly compensated, sometimes it's a much better option than the alternative, and it would help to make it available to grad students if possible.

Anna K.

Thanks for the comments everybody!! :) Really interesting points and discussions!!

The points about barely surviving grad school really resonate with me as well! I’m sorry about that- it’s really horrible! And I also agree with the last point about teaching - while teaching is often low-paid (which is a big problem), it can still be more useful for grad students to stick with it (especially given how useful it is for CVs and experience if you want to stay in academia). But it can be so exclusionary - and the example just shows how badly even things that could be useful to(low-income) grad students can turn out bad.

Just two more things:
Regarding the point that rich students also leave: I’m sure that is true. The job market is surely depressing for most, and there’s a good portion of luck involved either way. But I’d still say that it can hit low-income students harder - and that there are some benefits you’re able to utilize if you have more money. For example, in the text we list a few mechanisms that might mean that you have less time to write papers, do talks, go networking if you have to work several jobs on the side just to get by. While it’s surely true that having a couple of papers published doesn’t *guarantee* you a job - I’ve been regularly told that if I don’t have *any* I might as well not even start applying. And if you don’t have to work on the side, you simply have more time writing. This is just one example, there are many more. Also, if you have enough money "left-over", or your parents can just put you through for a year, or provide you with a flat or something like that, you can focus much more on the job-marked: You have more time to apply, keep working on papers, etc. All that isn’t to say that high-income students don’t meet difficulties, but I suspect that there are some benefits they’re able to utilize that others might not.
That said, while I’m sure it’s right that some rich people leave the academy, it seems like it’s a matter of fact that not *all* of them do, and that, currently and in most Unis, there are more people coming from high-income backgrounds.

Regarding the point that Uni courses tend to be for richer kids anyways: Generally speaking (as we also acknowledge in footnote 2), it does seem right that the academy is a system that is created by people with money for people with money. That people within that institution don’t consider what it means to try to participate without access to enough funds, is probably not that much of a surprise. The point is, that it shouldn’t be that way and that this should change - so we should have more conversations about how to improve that situation.

Jules  H

I was fortunate to study in the UK when there were not the extortionate fees that there currently are, but took on care work to support myself through my undergraduate degree (and was then fortunate to get funding for MA & PhD). My impression is also that, when I was a PG student, there were more bursaries available to support conference attendance then (mid-late 2000s) (and that some of those could be claimed up front, if requested). There was also less of a 'publish or perish' norm then too (I finished my PhD in 2008).

I think this gets at a point that makes what Anna and Rosa write here very important - that even for those of us now in academia who did support themselves through UG, MA and PhDs, the conditions in which we did (at least in the UK) were very different from those now faced by current students. (And, if post covid recessions loom, things may get much worse).

Sorry if that seems pessimistic - i meant really to get at the epistemic gap that arises out of this.

Jules H

As for what to do about it - unpick the marketisation of HE (no small task!); find as many opportunities for paid roles within academia as possible; encourage learned societies that provide bursaries to be open to giving funds up front; encourage them to waive membership fees for grad students...? Covid has facilitated more online conferencing, which will hopefully be an option also in future (it makes conference attendance cheaper, and easier to fit around other jobs, childcare etc)...(but doesn't address the informal networking issue)? Fight against the publish or perish norms, and discourage the academic work culture that requires we give so much to it...? Not that any of these are easy, but perhaps some are more concretely actionable...

Junior TT

I was lucky enough to get a TT job my first time on the market as a grad student at a teaching focused large state school. But I almost couldn't afford to take the job because the job was 2500 miles away form where I lived and the funds I was given to cover moving costs didn't even cover 1/4 of the moving cost. I am almost two years into this TT job and I still have lots of debt from this move. I have seriously thought about leaving my TT position to pay for the cost of taking my current position. Given my very low level of pay relative to the cost of living in the US coastal city I live in, it will take me years to pay off the cost of actually taking this job.

There seems to be some kind of assumption on the part of deans and departments that grad students who are hired have access to funds to move.

Another assumption was that I had funds to cover the initial moving costs so that I could be reimbursed by the university. But I didn't. I almost could not take the job because of this.

lucky postdoc

Thank you so much for this post. All of what is mentioned in the post was true of my experience. In particular, I can't begin to express the number of occasions where I was working 20-30 hours a week landscaping while my peers were able to use that time to work on papers or TAing. It put me at a real disadvantage, particularly during my first couple years. I nearly dropped out as a result (though I ultimately went on to finish my PhD).

I would like to add another factor based on my experience as a low income student. I moved to the east coast from a very rural western state to pursue my PhD. Neither of my parents hold degrees beyond high school. Because my family had no experience of higher ed, they not only had very little ability to support my financially, but they had very little ability to support me emotionally or practically as well. It taxing trying to explain and justify what I was doing and why I was doing to my family and friends. And, the experience was very isolating. This, I found, was also in stark contrast to many of my peers who had both, more financial resources, and also family who had advanced degrees.

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