In Limbo, Graduate Students Wonder if Fall Assistantships Will Be Available

By Owen Daugherty, NASFAA Staff Reporter

Graduate students face a different set of financial questions as they grapple with the new economic reality imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. For many, their livelihood depends on their school being operational with the campus open — a scenario that is still uncertain for many institutions as summer begins. 

Often employees of the institutions they attend, many graduate students work as research and teaching assistants and, in some cases, course instructors. They do this generally for little or no pay in exchange for discounted or free tuition, along with a stipend for living expenses. But the closure of colleges and universities across the country forced many graduate students into a sort of limbo, unsure whether to renew a lease, or expect a job back on campus when it is safe to return.

Funding disruptions for graduate students pose a different set of problems than for undergraduates, as they are often older and more likely to have families to support in addition to holding student debt from their undergraduate studies. The core concerns center around whether assistantships that largely cover tuition will still be offered come fall, with university budgets in flux and state funding for higher education being squeezed.

Much like higher education as a whole, graduate students are in a wait-and-see mode as they attempt to plan for fall, said Karen Arnold, an associate professor of higher education at Boston College. She said graduate students depend on assistantships for tuition deferment, and universities are hesitant to offer the positions if they are unsure whether students will be on campus in the fall.

“Our [graduate] students who are accepted and want to come don't know what's going to happen with their assistantships because of budget stuff and because they work with students, and therefore are leery about starting leases,” Arnold said. “The existence of the work and its nature is dependent on what happens with students and classroom instruction.”

Arnold, who works directly with two graduate students, noted that for those returning to Boston College, the university has ensured they will have an assistantship. But for new students, the same promise can’t be made. For other institutions that are even more financially strapped, “that is not a given,” she said.

Furthermore, as online instruction is likely to become more prominent moving forward, with many colleges looking to a hybrid approach in the fall, graduate students who teach are figuring out how to best do so, just as professors are navigating the same situation.

“All the teaching assistants — just like the faculty — aren't quite sure what's going on, or whether they're going to have full rosters,” Arnold said. “They're also struggling with learning to teach. None of us understand how to teach in this high-flex load environment.”

Katy Krieger, a doctoral candidate at the University of Oklahoma and assistant director of the university’s First-Year Composition program, said she had an intensive two-week training when she first started in 2017 to prepare graduate students like herself for teaching both online and in-person, but noted that is rare and far from the norm.

“Graduate students had to deal with becoming online teachers or research assistants and online students, all at once,” she said. “Many graduate students were left to figure out online systems like Canvas and Zoom, in addition to handling their own coursework.”

Krieger added that for the schools like hers that are returning to in-person instruction in the fall, graduate students in teaching positions will likely be doing the in-person instruction, putting them at risk of contracting the virus.

Aside from fears associated with the virus itself, the biggest obstacle for Krieger and other colleagues she has spoken with is the diminished job prospects for academics once they earn their degree.

“Many graduate students  — especially those at the Ph.D. level — are thinking about [alternative academic] jobs or other academic jobs like advising and administration,” she said. “The idea of a tenure-track job or teaching-specific job at a college or university seems even more impossible now, so we all must re-examine what careers we might invest our time in and how we can develop ourselves for those positions.”

Even before looking at the full-time job market, Krieger said many graduate students look for odd-jobs in the summer, such as service industry positions, to supplement their small stipend or income. However, the pandemic has greatly impacted that job market, leaving many graduate students pinching pennies.

“I know quite a few [graduate] students who will have to skip meals and struggle to pay for prescriptions, turn to dwindling governmental resources that we often don’t qualify for, and make that pathetic, one-time stimulus check stretch over two or three months,” she said.

David Sheridan, director of financial aid at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, works exclusively with students seeking a master’s degree and said he has heard from several students who had their internships or work arrangements for the summer cancelled or turned into unpaid positions.

“The source of income they were counting on to get them through the summer at the eleventh hour was made unavailable,” he said, noting that was the reason many of the graduate students he works with decided to apply for institutional emergency aid.

Sheridan added that his school within Columbia has seen a “significant amount of melt deferrals to the spring semester.”

“We still haven't made an announcement as to whether or not we're going to be offering in-person instruction,” he said, pointing out that New York City became the global epicenter of the pandemic. “There are people who, even if they can get here, they're nervous about doing so.”

Arnold noted that while melt for graduate schools could occur this summer, previous economic recessions actually boosted higher education enrollment, particularly for graduate or professional degrees.

She said her school has seen a slightly higher rate of deferments, but attributed it to the subset of students who are “patiently waiting for things to open up with the finalizing of budget decisions.”

While schools are making difficult budget decisions, Krieger said graduate students can slip through the cracks since the university views them as both students and staff, meaning they ultimately get the short end of the stick when it comes to additional resources provided.

“At the university level, graduates have been fairly ignored as both employees and students,” she said. “We are not the focal point of most of the employee conversations, such as sick leave, nor are we the target audience for new student policies.”


Publication Date: 6/17/2020

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