As pandemic drags on, college students feel the financial squeeze
Katelyn Counts arrived at UNR in 2020, just as COVID restrictions had eased enough for in-person instruction to at least partially return.
Still, it was a difficult transition. With no vaccines available, the pandemic shuttered much of the normal college experience — most of her classes were still largely online, club activities were limited and social events were held at one’s own peril. She also was coming from out-of-state, unsure of how best to handle a hunt for housing, let alone affordable housing in a market with prices that have only climbed upward.
Less than two years later, she will be gone. By this summer, she’ll be back home in Sacramento, where she can live and go to school with friends, all while paying less than half her current rent bill.
“I had been thinking about going home, and I was like, ‘No, you're gonna be great,” Counts said. “This whole housing stuff just kind of ruined it.”
As students at every level know well, the cost of college is not just tuition and fees and books. It’s also housing and food, utilities and transportation, adding up to thousands — often tens of thousands — in expenses that must be covered by a varied mix of part-time jobs and, at the graduate level, graduate assistantships.
The trope of the “broke college student” is not cliche, but rather a genuine struggle for thousands of Nevada students who have increasingly sought help from school-sponsored food pantries to help offset rising rents.
It is an issue that’s become acute for some international students, who must weigh the struggle for financial security here against the possibility of better prospects — and the security of family — back home.
And it is an issue that comes with few easy answers, as the government purse strings that could increase student incomes have themselves been cinched tight amid a pandemic and broader economic worries that have not ebbed after years of a “new normal.”
Nicole Thomas is the president of UNLV’s Graduate and Professional Student Association, a position from which she’s been able to see her peers struggle with cost issues firsthand. That includes one fellow Ph.D. candidate who accumulated a mountain of debt before she ever received a graduate assistantship.
“Without any state assistance, she's looking at about $100,000 in debt, because she took out loans to pay for a house, she took out loans to pay for her car,” Thomas said.
And in what she called a “problem across the nation,” Thomas said many graduate students have income only from graduate assistantships — part-time teaching and research jobs through programs run by the university — that are squeezed tighter with every passing year.
“When the stipend amount doesn't keep up with cost of living, you're going to run into the issue of people just not being able to afford everyday living expenses, which makes the whole college thing a lot more difficult,” Thomas said.
The stipend problem
Of the more than 100,000 students spread across the eight institutions of the Nevada System of Higher Education, 8,522 were graduate students as of fall 2021. Among them, most (5,214) were at UNLV, where the number is buoyed by more than 1,000 students at the university’s schools of law and medicine.
Another 3,239 students were at UNR, with the remaining 69 working on master’s degrees at Nevada State College in Henderson.
Across both UNLV and UNR, roughly one-fifth of all graduate students have graduate assistantships, formal university jobs that include both teaching assistants and research assistants.
These jobs are paid by a stipend, varying in amount by circumstance, and with doctorate degrees commanding higher overall stipends than master's degrees.
But amid rising costs and soaring housing prices, graduate assistants at both universities say the money does not go nearly far enough.
“You're very quickly running into the issue of people who are well over the age of 24 or 25, who might have families or children or just want to own a home and make roots in Nevada — because graduate programs are normally four to six years long,” Thomas said. “You run into the issue of a lot of people just being unable to afford [to live] anywhere around the university.”
Part of the issue is the nature of the stipend itself. If students were to work full time at a stipend rate, they would earn between roughly $38,000 to $44,000 per year.
But because the stipends are prorated, often with limits of between 10 and 20 working hours per week, and often in place for only 10 months of the year, graduate assistants are routinely left with half as much or less — leaving tight budgets strained further by necessities like food and transportation.
Kingkini Sengupta is a graduate student at UNR’s Reynolds School of Journalism, an international student from India seeking a second master’s degree in media innovation.
An average stipend for a UNR master’s student may come out to roughly $1,600 per month, assuming a 20-hour work week. But as an international student, a typical month of Sengupta’s stipend is capped at just 15 hours of work per week, which delivers $1,200 per month — on paper.
In reality, she said, the amount is closer to $1,072 after taxes, of which more than half, $660, is eaten away by rent at an apartment near the UNR campus.
“[It] barely leaves me with anything at the end of the month,” Sengupta said. “It's a hand-to-mouth situation.”
And in a pandemic-addled economy that has seen volatile gas prices and fast-growing inflation, many have felt every cent of the increase, especially as solving one cost issue may compound another.
“If you try to live, let's say farther into Reno, for instance, for a cheaper housing cost,” said Matthew Hawn, a Ph.D. student and president of the UNR Graduate Student Association. “Well, if you're a student who's not from the Reno area, now you have to purchase a car, or you have to know somebody with a car who's constantly going to and from campus.”
Though stipends are not necessarily static, and administrators have sought to increase them in small ways over time, those adjustments often have come years apart.
For the first time since 2018, graduate student stipends are set to increase at UNR in fall 2022 — teaching assistants working 20 hours per week can expect about $100 more per month.
Such increases often come as the result of internal wrangling of complex and byzantine university budgets — budgets that have only become more strained amid pandemic-spurred cuts and revenue shortfalls.
As a result, increases can sometimes be delayed, according to UNR Graduate School Dean David Zeh, who said he had been asking administrators for a stipend increase since 2019.
“We recognize this is something you need to increase every few years,” Zeh said in an interview. “It’s particularly important because of the way that rents are rising so precipitously [in Reno]. But at the same time, we've had COVID, and we've had decreased enrollments, and we've had state funding cuts. So it's been really difficult and challenging to find the funds.”
Zeh said UNR’s stipend rates remain generally competitive among peer institutions across the Mountain West region. But that competitiveness slips when factoring in Reno rents, which rose 12.4 percent through the third quarter of 2021, up to an average of nearly $1,500.
Most graduate programs dissuade students from taking on additional outside work, but it is not technically prohibited. For some students, there are few other options.
For international graduate students, the nature of visa restrictions mean most traditional avenues for additional work are often legally unavailable, leaving stipends as the only means of self-support during their time in school.
Sengupta came to the Western U.S. from India in part to try avoiding notoriously pricey coastal metros. She applied in Oregon, but came to UNR specifically because it would give her a stipend and allow her to avoid costly loans.
In Reno, Sengupta said “the community has been good to me,” as others have helped her secure affordable housing and trips to the grocery store when she needs a ride. But she’s still felt a financial strain.
“For a student who's essentially supposed to concentrate on work and on doing their education properly … we are, at the end, struggling, making ends meet and every month thinking how we could cut down on expenses,” she said.
Because her visa limits her ability to take on additional work beyond her assistantship, there are few opportunities to supplement her income beyond one-off odd jobs or errands.
“The federal stipulation doesn't allow us to legally earn more money, so then I have to run errands, little stuff for people — maybe pick up snow here or watch someone's dog — to be able to make money,” Sengupta said. “I'm not belittling any work, it's important work, it’s good work. But the time I want to use up for myself for my education, if I have to sit and think about running errands, to be able to make money, that kind of makes life difficult over here.”
Many international students who need financial help avoid it, out of fear that taking assistance — such as from university-run student food pantries, which offer limited funds for groceries — could be the thing that prevents them from getting a green card and ultimately staying in the United States.
“[The university] clarified it, that you can get [this] public benefit,” Monika Bharti, a Ph.D. student and member of Graduate Student Association’s council. “But … as an international student, I don't want to take chances … So for us, that option is crossed out.”
Amid costs, concerns over food
Stipend or no, graduate or undergraduate, survey data collected by student groups at both universities show a dramatic rise in food insecurity from the onset of the pandemic.
Internal data on food pantry usage is more difficult to contextualize, as the management of campus food pantries — even down to the way those pantries are branded and advertised to students — has shifted over time.
In the first full academic year of the pandemic, 2020-2021, the number of UNR students who recieved services from the campus food pantry had increased to more than 4,200, a jump of nearly 70 percent from the 2,500 students served the past academic year. Among students who had self-identified as food-insecure in the earliest days of the pandemic (May of 2020) fully 60 percent identified COVID as the reason.
And among graduate students specifically, internal survey data from UNR showed a small but significant percentage for whom food was “sometimes or always” an issue. As of the most recent survey in spring of 2021, that number had risen to 12 percent, up from the 9 percent measured in both 2020 and 2018.
“People are often surprised, which surprises me,” Amy Koeckes, Associate Director of UNR’s Center for Student Engagement, said. “We've received comments such as, ‘Well, can't their parents just pay for this?’ There's this perception of a college student that — it's not true all the time, especially at our campus.”
No quick solutions
Students at the center of these issues say it’s a problem that demands long overdue investment.
“[The solution] is having some sort of state intervention, where they recognize the need, and we make cost of living adjustments,” Thomas said. “Because when you look at the stipend rates, they largely haven't changed for about 20 years. When you put the onus on universities, I think it's really difficult for them to be able to figure out where to pull that money from.”
To that end, some students and faculty have begun to organize around possible legislative solutions that could be pursued at the next session in 2023.
Zeh said efforts to petition regents — and eventually lawmakers — on the issue of increasing graduate stipends will begin in earnest within the next month. Still, he said he remained concerned that the plight of students could be lost among the broader economic issues, as all Reno renters are pressured by costs, not just Ph.D. candidates.
“I'm just a little bit concerned that the way it's been presented will be kind of dismissed by the public, and eventually politicians,” Zeh said. “And I think it's important when we make our case to the region, that we talk about the incredible contributions that graduate students, particularly graduate teaching and research assistants make to the university.”
Among those students is Hawn, who pointed to the possibility of a budgetary increase for the purpose of funding stipends or the use of one-time funds — to the tune of $112 million — to build affordable housing for graduate students on or near both UNR and UNLV.
“I think that would be a tremendous win, because that can kind of do a few things, not just for students, but also economically for the surrounding area,” Hawn said. “One, [it] decreases the competition of students trying to live outside of the university bubble, which means that there's more housing available for everybody else to a degree.”
But such goals are easier said than won, and some students still hold concerns that a broader lack of organizing could hamper efforts in the long term.
Alice Letowt, a graduate assistant in UNLV’s English department, pointed to restrictions on collective bargaining for graduate students, faculty and student employees as a key barrier to meaningful change for the better.
“It's a pretty complicated problem that, obviously, is caused by how we structure our economy, and what we value and what we don't value,” she said.
Faculty advocates with the Nevada Faculty Alliance attempted to change the legal basis for faculty unions in 2021, backing a bill, SB373, that would have allowed faculty groups to bargain like any other public employees. That bill died in committee.
Recent legislative sessions have produced few monetary wins for a higher education system that saw its budgets hobbled first by the Great Recession, then again by the pandemic.
Still, some of the graduate students at the center of these efforts said they remain hopeful that light could be at the end of the tunnel for future cohorts of students seeking advanced degrees years down the line, if not for them.
“Surprisingly, I used to be more hopeless than now,” Thomas said. “So I really think, just being able to gain traction, and just having students become aware of it and speak up about it — I think it speaks magnitudes to the problem.”