Post-Grad Blues

At CUNY, Doctoral Students Say the Livin' Ain't Easy

Mindful that many doctoral students at the City University of New York can barely keep body and soul together from lack of financial support, state legislators responsible for policy making on higher education are pushing to increase funding for graduate programs.

Following a series of budget hearings earlier this month, the state assembly's Committee on Higher Education proposed that funding for the Graduate Tuition Assistance Program be doubled from $3 million to $6 million. In addition, the 23-member committee is asking for additional monies for full-time faculty, among other things. By contrast, despite his pro-education rhetoric, Governor Pataki failed to specifically set aside any increases for cash-strapped doctoral students when he announced his budget proposal last month, drawing criticism from those who think higher education should be more of a priority.

"The governor is looking at CUNY as a budget problem; he is not looking at it as an educational problem," says Democrat Edward C. Sullivan, chair of the state assembly's higher education committee. "There is a goal here; we are not spending money for the sake of spending it." But even so, Sullivan is not sure if his proposal will be accepted. "He doesn't seem to be focusing his attention on higher education, and that's what is unfortunate."

"You simply can not live like a person in New York City and have time to get your work done if you are living on the wages of a part-time professor."

The CUNY administration, of course, supports increases in funding. Testifying before a state budget hearing last month, Chancellor Matthew Goldstein asked for an additional $1.5 million for doctoral student support. "Most universities provide a significant amount of financial aid in order to free doctoral students from full-time work obligations so they can concentrate on their studies," he said.

Goldstein also requested $16.5 million to hire 300 new full-time faculty at CUNY, where currently about half of the instructors are adjuncts. "The excessive reliance on adjunct teaching that has come to characterize CUNY is counter to exemplary academic practice and has been identified 'as one of the greatest threats to program quality in higher education,' " he said.

Doctoral students are equally concerned about the overreliance on adjuncts, but for different reasons. "You simply can not live like a person in New York City and have time to get your work done if you are living on the wages of a part-time professor," says Kristin Lawler, a Ph.D. student in sociology, who has worked as a teaching adjunct within CUNY.

With no substantial institutional support, hundreds of CUNY students take on low-paying, part-time positions as adjuncts while trying to concentrate on their studies. "Who has time to think and write when you struggling to stay above water financially?" Lawler says.

That struggle is also common to doctoral students who work outside the university as waiters, clerks, and salespeople, and at a variety of other jobs to survive. "The financial aid they offer is not enough to live on," says Lara Zoble, a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy, who works at a publishing firm. Last semester, she was offered only $1000 in assistance for the entire year, whereas tuition is more than $2000 per semester. "It's unfortunate that there is so little funding."

Sean Kelly, a second-year doctoral candidate in French literature who was attracted to CUNY because of its outstanding program and comparatively low tuition, works as a legal assistant in a midtown law firm to support himself. Currently a full-time student as well, he says, "I wish I didn't have to work so hard."

Meanwhile, Sullivan hopes that if his funding proposal is accepted, it will bring some relief, although he admits it will not be sufficient. "I'll be very frank: It won't be enough, but it will be more than it is now," he says. The higher education committee has also proposed that budgets be written on a five-year schedule, instead of having a new budget every year. "This will help people plan a little bit," Sullivan says.

The Professional Staff Congress believes wages and benefits for adjuncts need to be significantly improved, and has just started a campaign to recruit more adjuncts into the union.

Another Ph.D. student, who did not want to be named, says she was forced to drop out of her program after one semester because of financial hardship. "The fellowship CUNY offered me would not even have covered my tuition, and even to be eligible for that, you have to be taking at least three classes. It's a catch-22; I can't take three classes while working full-time to support myself."

Sullivan would like to help students like her, who may only have time to attend one or two classes, to afford school. "It's not like the olden days; a lot of students are part-time," he says. The committee wants to extend graduate tuition assistance grants to part-time students on a prorated basis according to how many classes they are taking.

Lawler has given up trying to support herself as an adjunct, and now works as coordinator of the Adjunct Project and for the Professional Staff Congress, the CUNY union. PSC believes wages and benefits for adjuncts need to be significantly improved, and has just started a campaign to recruit more adjuncts into the union to strengthen their numbers and their bargaining power. They are seeking tuition remission and paid office hours for adjuncts, among other things.

Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help