David Reingold, the Justin S. Morrill Dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Purdue University, recently announced that the college would be increasing graduate student stipends to $15,000/year. (I do not know what they were before, but he called them "some of the lowest in the Big Ten.") That's the good news. The bad news is that, in order to make the numbers add up, the number of students who receive funding will be significantly cut.
It is unclear from the announcement how significant the number of cuts will be. The Purdue Exponent reports that the number of fellowships will be cut to 500 and that there are currently 1,069 graduate students in the college. It does not say, however, how many of those students are currently funded. If Purdue has been funding all of their graduate students, then this would be a reduction by about half. It is also unclear whether the college would be accepting students without funding them. Melissa Remus, the associate dean of research and graduate education in liberal arts, said that “we know that the labor market has changed, and we’d like to respond appropriately.” This suggests that they are intentionally cutting the number of students, although, again, it is not clear if they are planning to reduce them by half.
I have little doubt that in the coming weeks august publications like the Chonicle of Higher Education will feature hand-wringing essays and columns citing this development as a primary example of the neo-liberal corporatization of the university and the decline of the liberal arts. This it may be. But if I may venture another prediction, it will be that the majority of the people writing these will be college professors. No matter how well-meaning and sympathetic, anyone who has a full-time job in the academy simply does not understand how people's lives are ruined by getting an expensive graduate education and then not being able to find meaningful or remunerative work.
I am 48 years old and have two graduate degrees. I have published a well-reviewed book and am routinely told by students that they take my classes because other students say great things about me. One would think those factors would make me well-qualified for some sort of middle-class living with a decent salary and some level of professional respect. But they do not. I earn $28,000/year as an adjunct teaching five classes at two universities, and am $110,000 in debt. I have next to nothing saved for retirement and only have health insurance because of my wife's job. I am a net drain on my family's financial resources, which is another way of saying that my wife is subsidizing my employers. For this privilege, I typically work 60 hours a week and am always, always, always exhausted. Moreover, mine is not some unusual story. It is the most likely result for those who choose to pursue a career in the humanities or liberal arts.
If, when I was entering graduate school years ago, schools across the land were enacting policies similar to Purdue's, I might not have gotten to pursue advanced degrees in the liberal arts. I no doubt would have been very upset at the time. But there is no remotely likely scenario in which I would be worse off today than I actually am, having earned a liberal arts Ph.D. Purdue is doing the right thing; I hope that more universities follow suit.