Penny Wise, Pound Foolish

Note: this is a post reflecting on aspects of my experience in graduate school at the University of Missoui.

On Saturday evening I officially graduated from the University of Missouri with a PhD in history. On Monday there was a budget forum about the future of the university in light of the 12% budget cut for the 2017-2018 fiscal year, the latest of a succession of cuts that is part of a multi-year cycle of budget problems related to declining enrollment, pay for top university officials, and stagnant (at best) state appropriations. The result is austerity. The library budget has been at starvation levels for years, raises have been hard to come by, and the administration is looking around for further savings. This round will include the loss of some 400 jobs.

These cuts often result in self-fulfilling prophecies when it comes to, for instance, campus atmosphere because the cuts reduce services, course offerings and services, and research facilities, which, in turn reduce enrollment. The forum proposed further troubling issues, too, such as reducing investment in diversity services (diversity was one of the core issues in the campus protests two years ago), but it was another bad idea floated that is connected to my time here: cutting tuition waivers for graduate students, described as an unexplored source of revenue.

I would not have come to the University of Missouri for graduate school if not for funding as a graduate student. There were other reasons why I came here, sure, including to work with my advisor and a solid array of supporting faculty members, but the tipping point for me was the funding. I did not have independent resources to support a graduate career, and Missouri offered stable funding that included health insurance, tuition waiver, and a stipend. The stipend was small, particularly given the workloads and the fees not covered by the waiver, but it was guaranteed for more years than most and the combination of health insurance and tuition waiver were attractive complements to that modest income.

Now both graduate student health insurance and tuition waivers are in limbo.

Graduate school is an investment. It is an investment of time and money and energy, and, at least in monetary terms, that investment is unlikely to pay off in monetary terms. I was warned about all of this by my professors before I handed over the steep application fees (twice). I stubbornly applied anyway and am almost entirely glad that I did, but I did heed one bit of their advice: don’t go unless there is at least the prospect of a stipend. I can understand going unfunded for one year, particularly if you’re also going to be working a second job, which I also did for the first two years I when I was on only the MA stipend, but not going to a school where there is no promise of the waiver. There are other reasons why I would not come to Missouri if I were starting over right now, too, but irrespective of all those, the finances alone would be enough to scare me away.

The phrase “penny wise, pound foolish” comes to mind. The University of Missouri-Columbia is the flagship institution of the state university system. In the history department, graduate students are employed teaching sections (and some entire classes) of the American history surveys, courses that undergraduates are required to take by Missouri law, while other departments teach sections of writing intensive courses, intro language sections, and the intro writing courses. The University already exploits graduate students for cheap labor to teach vast numbers of its students, on top of the research that is expected of an R1 institution. Many of us love to teach, finding it a rewarding endeavor, but that doesn’t change either the underlying reality or time commitments. If the university starts looking to graduate students as a source of revenue on top of a source of labor, it is likely to result in fewer and fewer people willing to sign up for that process. The university will survive in some form, but it is hard to imagine that it will remain at the level it historically aspired to.