The secret to avoiding graduate school debt Carey and Dempster don’t want to talk about…

This morning, I read a discussion between Kevin Carey and Doug Dempster in Inside Higher Ed, “Debating the Value of Arts (and Other) Degree Programs.” Carey is a journalist/writer specializing in issues of higher education, and Dempster is the former dean of the College of Fine Arts at the University of Texas at Austin. They were discussing an article Carey wrote for The Chronicle of Higher Education back in August called “The Great Masters Degree Swindle.” I haven’t read that original article, but given this conversation, the gist of it is pretty clear. There are a lot of graduate programs, particularly in “the arts” and “the humanities,” which are popular but which also are expensive and have a low return on investment. Carey spent time in that article talking about a very expensive graduate program in film studies at Columbia University and he names some other fairly exotic and expensive graduate programs in things like acupuncture and Positive Psychology (whatever that is). But I’m sure he also means graduate programs in things like creative writing, music of various sorts, acting, painting, etc., etc., degrees where there are  few chances of earning a decent living.

Carey and Dempster both agree the arts and similar pursuits are valuable in all sorts of different ways, though also both questioned the extent to which someone who wants to try their hand at filmmaking or acting or journalism needs to go to graduate school. Both talk about and around the problem of the rising costs of higher education generally, though neither of them have any solutions to any of this. And neither of them discussed the wisdom of going to graduate school in fields like this at all, nor do they discuss PhD programs– so I’ll put a pin in that for now.

But I was surprised neither of them brought up the obvious solution to the problem of paying for graduate school– or at least the obvious way for graduate students in many fields to greatly reduce the amount of debt. This solution has been around in the U.S. for at least 60 years, long before I started my MFA program in fiction writing in 1988, and it’s the way that everyone I know who is now in academia in some way got started in the profession.

It’s called a “Graduate Assistantship.”

When I applied to MFA programs in the late 1980s, I didn’t know much about graduate assistantships and I didn’t think much about how I would pay for graduate school. I just applied to what I thought were some of the best creative writing programs in the country and where I thought I might be able to get in. One of the places I applied– kind of on a whim– was Virginia Commonwealth University, in Richmond, Virginia. I got in, and Greg Donovan (who is still a professor at VCU and who was at the time the director of the MFA program) called me on the phone. “Steve,” he said, “I’m calling you to let you know we want to admit you to the program, and we also want to offer you a graduate assistantship.” He made this call to everyone who was offered an assistantship.

So, cocky young person that I was, I said this was exciting but I also had been admitted to some other really strong programs, I’d have to think about the pros and cons of it all, etc. etc. etc. Greg listened patiently and said “Those are all good points and also good programs, Steve. But listen, it’s not worth going into that much debt for a degree in creative writing.”

That sealed the deal for me, and the rest (as they say) is history.

The details of graduate assistantships vary a lot, but generally, “GAs” (sometimes called something like “Teaching Assistants” or TAs or “Research Assistants” or RAs) are competitive positions where universities pay graduate students a pathetically small amount of money and free or nearly free tuition to attend graduate school. In exchange, GAs perform some sort of labor, generally related to their studies. In English departments (and that usually includes creative writing), that means labor like teaching first year composition and sometimes introductory literature courses, assisting professors in teaching (especially large lecture hall courses), tutoring in a writing center, or working as an editorial assistant for a journal of some sort. I think there are analogous teaching/tutoring/editing positions in most of the humanities. In most of the sciences, GAs tend to work with/for professors in labs.

As far as I can tell, there are very few opportunities for graduate assistantships in fields where the potential earnings are higher– disciplines like medicine, business, law, and so forth. But for most of the fields these two are discussing, GA positions are more common. Even with the meager resources we have at EMU and even with our modest graduate school reputation, we still offer a number of GA positions in our department and across the university.

Furthermore, these positions offer the kind of workplace experience that Carey says (and Dempster kind of says this too) is something these outrageously expensive graduate programs lack. Everyone I know who has a career in higher education– including in staff positions like advising– got their start as a graduate assistant. Again, these folks don’t discuss PhD programs at all nor do they discuss the challenges of getting a faculty position of any sort (and so I won’t go into that either), but I’ve been a part of a lot of faculty searches over the years, and there is no way we would ever hire anyone for a faculty position who had not had experience as a GA.

Now, GA positions are far from a perfect solution. For starters, this does nothing to deal with the debt from undergraduate studies– that’s a whole different problem. The pay (“stipend”) can be ridiculously low and the positions can be very exploitive, which is why there are a number of institutions where GAs have unionized. The free or dramatically reduced tuition GAs get is usually worth much more than what GAs actually see in a paycheck, and that pay is also typically not enough to live on. That is especially true at underfunded universities like EMU. Most of our graduate assistants still end up borrowing at least some money and/or working part-time outside of the university. But the alternative is to pay all the costs of graduate school out of pocket, and that is obviously a worse situation.

The other potential problem with GA positions is because they are competitive, not everyone can get one. Then again, maybe if you’re an aspiring actor or journalist or painter or whatever and you want to go to graduate school but you are unable to find a university willing to fund at least part of the bills in exchange for labor that will also give you some valuable workplace experience, well, then maybe you should rethink those plans.

Anyway, it’s not that Carey and Dempster are wrong in their discussion, but I’m just surprised that they present going to graduate school anywhere and for pretty much anything as being only possible if students pay for everything themselves. That’s simply not true, and it is especially not true for a lot of the degree programs in fields where the ROI is more suspect.

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