When Faculty Can No Longer Afford To Teach: Ph.D.s on Foodstamps Center Stage in Academe

By Kristina Chew

College tuition keeps going up and also the amount of debt students and their families take on. College costs more not because of professors’ salaries: The Chronicle of Higher Education says that, according to the latest data from the 2011 Census, about 360,000 of the 22 million Americans with master’s degrees or higher in 2010 were receiving some kind of public assistance. While that is a small number in comparison to the total 44 million people nationally who received food stamps or some other form of public aid, hearing about Ph.D.’s subsisting on food stamps undermines the routinely-repeated claim that the more educated you are, the more $$$ you’ll make.

The Chronicle notes that those who do not attend graduate school are more likely to receive food stamps. But the percentage of those holding a graduate degree or higher who were receiving food stamps or some form of aid doubled between 2007 and 2010. For those holding a master’s degree, the figure for those receiving aid rose from 101,682 to 293,029. The increase was even more extreme for those with a Ph.D., with the number of those receiving assistance climbing from 9,776 to 33,655.

These figures might even be higher as graduate-degree holders may refrain from reporting that they are on public assistance.

The Chronicle describes three professor’s stories:

43-year-old Melissa Bruninga-Matteau has a Ph.D. in medieval history from the University of California at Irvine. She receives $900/month for teaching two humanities courses at Yavapai College, in Prescott, Arizona; a single mother, she receives food stamps and Medicaid.

Matthew Williams is the cofounder and vice president of the New Faculty Majority, an advocacy organization for non-tenured faculty. He earned $21,000 a year while teaching from 2007-2009 at the University of Akron and also relied on food stamps and Medicaid.

51-year-old Elliott Stegall is a graduate student finishing his dissertation in film studies at Florida State University. He and his wife have two young children; they receive food stamps, Medicaid, and aid from the Women, Infants, and Children program (WIC). Stegall currently teaches two courses each semester in the English department at Northwest Florida State College, in Niceville, Florida, and has also painted houses, worked for a catering company and cleaned condominiums to make ends meet.

As Michael Bérubé, president of the Modern Language Association and an English professor at Penn State University, says, “Everyone thinks a Ph.D. pretty much guarantees you a living wage and, from what I can tell, most commentators think that college professors make $100,000 and more.”

Sure, there are professors who make that much (in case you’re wondering, not the person writing this post). But full-time, tenured and tenure-track professors now comprise only 30 percent of faculty at the U.S.’s colleges and universities. The majority of college faculty — that is, most of the individuals teaching the majority of undergraduate courses — are adjuncts, part-time faculty who are not tenure-track, who do not receive health benefits and who make an average of $600 to $10,000 per course and, therefore, salaries that are far shy of six figures. As many schools have limits on how many courses an adjunct can teach (typically the maximum is two — any more and an adjunct would have so full a teaching load as to qualify for benefits), it is not uncommon for adjuncts to teach a course at this college and another two at that university, and another at another school, to cobble together something of a salary and pay for the gas to drive to all those schools.

(A good friend of ours who received his Ph.D. some years ago has been teaching about eight courses a semester at different schools in a midwestern city for several years.)

So many students today cannot afford college — and, more and more, too many professors cannot afford to teach them.

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3 Comments for “When Faculty Can No Longer Afford To Teach: Ph.D.s on Foodstamps Center Stage in Academe”

  1. I’m very tired of seeing these articles. If you want to have a career in academia, either go to an ivy for your PhD, or not. A PhD in Medieval Studies from a state school is worthless. You need to show you are the best.

  2. Mark Edward Achtermann

    I assume the figure $10,000 in the antepenultimate paragraph is a misprint for $1,000.

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