Quarterdeck Volume 5, Number 1, Spring 1997
The costs of higher education
Jeffrey P. Morin
I believe that it is part of human nature to become dissatisfied with one's current situation and/or living conditions at some point. This is, quite possibly, the driving force which makes us get up and do something to improve one or both. I guess the pertinent questions one asks oneself is "What exactly am I dissatisfied about? How can I change these things that bother me?" or maybe "Do I think too much about it?"
Graduate students justifiably go through these debates, in many cases due to the state of change they are in and anticipating. Inevitably we graduate students begin to compare ourselves and our situations to students at other institutes. I listen to these comparisons and interject my own opinion about what I have heard about different schools in conversations with my friends at Texas A&M University. At some point I began to wonder whether any of these complaints were well founded or if they were just the idle chatter and natural dissatisfaction a gathering of individuals will tend to discuss.
Amazingly, very detailed information about graduate programs is available on the Internet on web pages established by the individual oceanography schools and marine institutes. I began looking at these web sites, but discovered that the information made available is not exactly uniform. Admittedly, comparisons of the schools on this level is a very complex task because of the dissimilarity of each web site, so I made a list of basic issues which are major concerns for graduate students and called eight oceanography schools about them.
A major consideration for anyone who is considering graduate school is the half-time salary he or she will be paid as a student. At the graduate level of education most people are financially independent and must consider the ramifications of living under a limited budget. Graduate students notoriously must deal with a reduced income and a confined lifestyle. It has been suggested that this is part of the charm of higher education. I compared current annual stipends (averaged between masters and Ph.D. students) at each of the graduate schools I contacted with a recent estimated Cost of Living index for the area in which the school is located.
In general the range of average annual stipends allotted graduate students is not great. WHOI gives the largest stipend of $16,000 per year and the smallest stipend is given at the URI, paying $12,192 per year. Of course this is a problematic comparison to make because the calculations are made assuming students work 20 hours per week throughout the year. Many schools, including URI, increase students' hours to 40 per week during the summer months.
In addition the student must consider health care costs when calculating an annual budget. Not all of the graduate schools supply health insurance for their students. The University of Texas and Texas A&M pay for insurance for students through employee health benefit programs. WHOI, URI, UMRSMAS, and UNC require students to pay for their own health insurance. This is a major consideration, of course, particularly for married students with families. Expenditures for health benefits can reduce a student's annual stipend as do other periodic expenses such as tuition.
The annual cost of education can be substantial, any parent will agree with that. In my conversations with the representatives of each school I found that the majority of programs I contacted provide tuition for their graduate students. In most cases where student tuition is provided, it is paid either through the state or through research grants. The schools that did not provide tuition were UNC, UTMSI, and TAMU. This issue is very dear to many people I have spoken with at Texas A&M because the annual cost can exceed $3000. Tuition at UTMSI also exceeds $3000 per year, and yearly tuition at UNC is approximately $2,800.
This problem has actually become a legislative issue for the state government of Texas in the form of House Bill #931 and the companion Senate Bill #666. These bills would exempt graduate students with teaching assistantships or research assistantships who have completed their course work from paying tuition. In the case of Texas A&M, which has approximately 8,500 graduate students, this bill would produce at least a five-million-dollar deficit in annual revenue for the university. The lack of agreement over who will make up this deficit is probably the reason the bills are bogged down in subcommittees and most likely will not come up for vote before the end of the legislative session in May.
Ultimately we graduate students have to research the programs we are interested in and decide what is most important-our fiscal considerations or the quality of education and faculty in residence who will supervise and influence us. I believe that in the end the latter issue prevails and we must arrange ourselves and our lifestyles to accommodate the financial sacrifice.
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Last updated June 7, 1997