Money Matters

July 27, 2010

The University of California campuses are known for top doctoral programs, but two new reports on graduate students suggest that the state's financial problems are posing dangers to that reputation.

A new report from the university system shows that graduate students are unhappy with housing affordability, the amount of financial support the university provides, and the support’s type and duration.

The report found that graduate-student stipends increased at the system's universities from 2004 to 2007, with the biggest jumps at Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara, Berkeley and UCLA. Nonetheless, in 2007, the stipends netted about $1,000 less than at students’ top-choice universities outside the system -- a factor that may play a role in where students decide to enroll. The University of California has a selective admission rate of 19 percent, compared to 32 percent at peer institutions, but an average yield of 43 percent, compared to an average of 57 percent at other universities.

“Our stipends are quite low compared to the cost of living,” said Steven Beckwith, UC vice president for research and graduate studies. “I don’t know if we can do much about it in the current budget climate, but it remains a long-term goal.”

Berkeley graduate students receive about $16,000 a year after tuition is remitted. “Stanford graduate students get twice that,” said Jessica Taal, Berkeley unit chair for UAW Local 2865, which represents academic student employees, including teaching assistants. “Almost everyone I know at Berkeley has to get money in another way – outside fellowships, working, freelancing, dog-walking, whatever it takes.”

Another study released this year measured graduate student satisfaction at Berkeley. Among its findings were data showing that students who rely most on student loans were affected most by recent budget cuts. Additionally, support for graduate student parents – about 10 percent of the population – is viewed as inadequate, and about 30 percent of survey respondents have difficulty finding appropriate and affordable housing.

Taal said that an average one-bedroom apartment around Berkeley costs $1,400 a month, and that housing is simply not affordable. She is currently not enrolled -- for financial reasons.

Beckwith, however, said that the university graduate students are in pretty good shape. “It isn’t a lucrative life, but it’s a perfectly adequate life for taking care of your basic needs, being able to focus on research, improvement and study,” he said. “The amount of money is not the primary consideration – the first consideration is the quality of the institution and the quality of the faculty.”

Students who took the Berkeley survey mentioned other noticeable changes due to budget cuts. Class sizes are bigger, creating a larger workload for teaching assistants and less faculty attention for the undergraduates.

The system report concludes that more funding is required to continue to attract the highest-quality graduate students. Students in physical, life, and computer sciences, as well as engineering, are most likely to receive outside grants and fellowships, but students in the humanities and social sciences rely most on university funds. More sources of internal funding will have to be identified to support them, the report states.

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