The struggling graduate student is something of a cliché in higher education, but student leaders at the University of South Carolina say they’re sick of scraping by on piddly stipends that would qualify them for Food Stamps.
Graduate students at South Carolina make an average annual stipend of $9,590, a sum that students say is insufficient to meet the rising costs of tuition (for those without waivers), living costs, and university-mandated health-care coverage.
After compiling a report  that showed South Carolina trailing its peers in stipend awards, the Graduate Student Association issued a letter  to the university’s board of trustees last month calling for greater compensation.
South Carolina administrators have since announced the formation of a committee to examine the issue. Trustees, however, have yet to respond, according to the students.
Reed Curtis, president of the Graduate Student Association, said he’s glad to see the university taking some action. But, paraphrasing complaints he’s heard from other students, Curtis said “it’s wonderful to form a committee, and it’s wonderful for them to write a memo, but what’s a memo going to do for my paycheck?”
Making their case that South Carolina graduate students are underpaid, the association cited a 2003 survey from The Chronicle of Higher Education. That study, now five years old, found that the national average for stipends was $14,000.
University officials say they want to be competitive with regional peers, including Virginia Tech. But Virginia Tech’s current average stipend of $18,000 nearly doubles that paid by South Carolina. The discrepancy, however, could be in part attributable to higher stipends typically paid to graduate students in the heavily-represented science fields at Virginia Tech.
Graduate students at South Carolina were particularly miffed that trustees recently approved a 5.9 percent tuition increase, adding a burden to students who do not have tuition waivers. In a survey of 550 graduate students at the university, roughly half of respondents said their full tuition was not covered.
James Buggy, interim dean of South Carolina’s graduate school, credits the students with helping to move forward an ongoing conversation on campus about recruiting and retaining quality graduate students. “I think USC can do better, and I think it wants to do better,” he said.
But Buggy views the work of the newly formed committee, which will include graduate student representation, as an important step in the process of evaluating stipend levels. The university needs more reliable data to make informed choices, he said.
While Buggy acknowledges that South Carolina could improve compensation levels, he says his “hunch” is that the stipend average cited by students is artificially low because a few departments are dragging down the average.
“I don’t want our policies to proceed on my hunch,” Buggy said.
Several stipend levels at South Carolina certainly exceed the average cited by graduate students. In chemical engineering and biomedical science, for instance, the university pays graduate students $22,000 a year, more than twice the university average.
The university’s current minimum stipends are $1,000 per semester for students working 10 hours a week and $2,000 a semester for a 20-hour work week. Buggy characterizes those stipend levels as “fairly antiquated,” and says the university plans to double its minimum stipend next year.
The committee is expected to produce a report at the end of the fall term, which would likely coincide with the conclusion of the university’s first semester under a new president. The university is in the midst of a presidential search, and “the outgoing president is reluctant to address these issues, because he thinks it’s really the prerogative of the new president,” Buggy said.
Graduate students are particularly concerned about the costs and quality of university-sponsored health care, according to the students’ letter to trustees. In 2004, the university began requiring graduate students to buy health insurance if they didn’t already have it. The requirement came with the promise that the university would move toward covering a greater share of the cost for students, but Buggy concedes that “what’s happened is they didn’t succeed in increasing the subsidy.”
Students pay $1,000 a year for university-sponsored health insurance, but South Carolina only covers about one-quarter of that cost.
While changes may not happen overnight, Buggy said he thinks South Carolina is serious about responding to students’ concerns.
“This group is kind of saying ‘hey, it’s our turn; let’s get it done,’“ he said. “To a certain extent by being a squeaking wheel they might get greased.”
Unlike some other campuses, graduate students are not unionized at South Carolina. Curtis said he’d like to keep it that way, although some students are talking about the need for collective bargaining rights.
“That’s something that as an association many people have started discussing,” he said. “My position is hopefully we won’t have to go to that step. Hopefully the administration will really swiftly make some changes.”