As graduate students attempt to make ends meet, stipends set to increase

KONNER METZ
Contributing Reporter

As the cost of living increases and the university navigates a financial headache, some graduate students are living by the week to make ends meet.

Nora Lucas, a graduate student in the geography and spatial sciences department, has met a fair share of peers who struggle financially. Lucas, who came from Kansas to be a research assistant and now lives in Elkton, Maryland, has not been satisfied with the financial compensation awarded to graduate students.

“They say a lot of things to us that are like, ‘Oh we’re interested in making things better for you guys,’” Lucas said. “But it’s just not happening on a timeline that’s keeping up with the cost of living at all.”

Currently, the minimum stipend for graduate students on scholarship is $22,660 for nine-month positions and $30,213 for 12-month positions. The nine-month rate was $22,000 last academic year.

Lou Rossi, the dean of the university’s Graduate College, outlined a scheduled set of minimum stipend increases to The Review that are sharper than last year’s increase.

For the nine-month program, the minimum will increase to $24,500 this fall, a jump of 8%. While Rossi said he hopes the minimum will increase to $27,000 by the fall of 2025, there are no guarantees. All increases are prorated for students in the 12-month programs.

Rossi felt the college hit its “high point” in 2019 before the pandemic disrupted business as usual. He assumed the role in the Graduate College in 2020 after serving as chair of the mathematical sciences department.

“The thing that we couldn’t do right away is increase stipends as aggressively as we need to be competitive,” Rossi said.

In two years, however, Rossi believes the competitiveness of minimum stipend levels will be back where it needs to be.

9-month program 12-month program
Current $22,660 $30,213
Fall 2024 $24,500 $32,666
Fall 2025 $27,000 $36,000

Projected minimum stipend increases over year. Konner Metz/THE REVIEW

Graphed projected minimum stipend increases over year. Konner Metz/THE REVIEW.

While the Graduate Student Government (GSG) is supportive of the increase this fall, the group is still aiming for steeper increases.

“The plan was shared with us in fall,” Alan Parkes, GSG’s president, wrote in a statement to The Review. “We are thankful for that. However, we are still asking for the university to meet living wage standards for New Castle County as determined by the MIT living wage calculator. Even with increases, we are lagging behind peer institutions.”

Graduate students often seek outside work for extra funds to support themselves. The university’s additional employment policy indicates that students may only work an extra nine-and-a-half hours per week outside of their graduate contract.

Additional hours must be approved by Rossi, who called the approval of those instances “pretty rare.”

For international students, bringing in extra money is more of a stretch – federal law limits visa holders to the 20-hours-per-week mark during the fall and spring semesters. While work during the winter and summer is allowed, it is often not enough to sustain normal living conditions during the fall and spring semesters.

One international student at the university, who preferred to remain anonymous, told The Review that they worked a job under the table and in violation of policy to sustain themselves month-to-month.

Lucas hears similar complaints from international graduate students.

“What I hear more often is, ‘God, I wish I could drop out of this program, this is driving me crazy,’” Lucas said. “‘This is just not working, but I literally have no other choice.’”

Keeping up with peer institutions

In a competitive region on the East Coast, Rossi knows that keeping tabs on what similar institutions offer is key. However, matching the stipends at another school is not as important as simply closing gaps that push students toward other universities.

“We’re never buying graduate students, it doesn’t work when you do,” Rossi said. “We always want to compete on quality. The trouble is you can’t compete on quality when the stipend at one institution is so vastly different than another that you can’t ignore it.

“That’s where we’re moving away from. There’s certain peer institutions in the area that I used to track and still do. We used to be kinda in the middle and then we drifted down and then we fell.”

Rossi recalled the instance of one student choosing another school in the region due to a $2,000 difference in stipends. That was despite the university’s elite ranking in the student’s desired program of study.

“If they wanna go somewhere else because they’re better, I don’t have a problem with that,” Rossi said. “My response to that is we gotta get better. But I don’t want it to be about the stipends.”

The GSG argued last spring for an increase of 12-month minimum stipends to $38,000, compiling data from peer institutions and testimonials from university students.

The group pointed out that the university falls behind comparator schools in chemical and biomolecular engineering despite an elite ranking nationwide. U.S. News & World Report ranked the university seventh in its 2023 list of best chemical engineering programs.

 University of Delaware 12-month doctoral minimum stipends versus comparator institutions. Konner Metz/THE REVIEW.

“On the healthcare side, it’s still a gap,” Rossi said. “[…] We’re not where we need to be.”

Students with dependents, though, often encounter further financial difficulty when it comes to healthcare premiums. Currently, the university does not subsidize healthcare premium costs for dependents. It does cover 86% of the premium cost for students themselves.

“There are some other universities that do other things,” Rossi said. “It’s on my list.”

Lucas knew a graduate student who needed outside help to make ends meet for themselves and their family. 

“The only way that they could get health insurance for their wife and their child was from charity,” Lucas said. “Because a faculty member in our department decided to help them. And that is the only way that any of this is working.”

The debate about making a living wage

At the core of the debate over graduate student stipends is the question of what constitutes a living wage. In his time as dean, Rossi has used the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Price Index (CPI) to assess the state of the university’s stipend levels. 

Year-to-year change in the CPI – which measures the “average change over time in the prices paid by urban consumers for a market basket of consumer goods and services” – illustrates a rate of inflation.

Before the pandemic, the university’s stipends were in solid shape with the CPI at the time, Rossi said. But since then, the university has fallen behind. High inflation rates in 2022, coupled with stagnant minimums (the university’s last increase was under $100 annually for 9-month students), caused this drag.

Courtesy of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Mid-Atlantic Information Office

However, the projected increases could put an end to this dip and bring the university’s graduate offerings back to where they were pre-pandemic.

“We will be where we were in 2019, assuming inflation stays the same,” Rossi said. “We will catch up.”

Earlier this semester, posters across campus demanded the university pay graduate students in accordance with the MIT living wage calculator. While these posters were not associated with GSG, Parkes explained that the government group does agree with its sentiments concerning a living wage.

A poster in Pearson Hall earlier this semester. Konner Metz/THE REVIEW.

“The GSG’s official position is that graduate students should earn what the MIT living wage calculator deems a living income in New Castle County,” Parkes said in a written statement.

The MIT living wage calculator for New Castle County puts a living annual wage after taxes at $40,915, a mark the university’s 12-month minimums fall short of.

“That limits who can earn a graduate degree at UD, falls short of peer institution stipends, and requires many graduate students to find other work, which prevents them from doing research and advancing in their disciplines and departments,” Parkes wrote.

Through her own experience as a graduate student and hearing from peers, Lucas feels the fight for increased stipends and improved health insurance is an ongoing plight.

“I would say that I’m not relying on hope from the university,” Lucas said. “This is why I want to talk about it with other grad students. I think that we can push for more, we need to. This is survival.”