Pursuing a life of the mind is expensive. The recent hubbub over the cost of student loans proves that at all levels, from undergraduate to graduate school, the investment pays off…unless it doesn't. Essentially, a Ph.D. is worth an estimated $17,000 a year, but for a number of reasons, there are huge swaths of people who are increasingly not seeing the benefit of the six- or seven-year degree.
The Chronicle of Higher Education recently published this piece about an increasing number of Ph.D.s who are relying on federal aid and food stamps. While the story does point out that people who don't go to college at all are more likely to end up being food stamp recipients, it highlights college faculty as an overlooked subgroup:
A record number of people are depending on federally financed food assistance. Food-stamp use increased from an average monthly caseload of 17 million in 2000 to 44 million people in 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Web site. Last year, one in six people—almost 50 million Americans, or 15 percent of the population—received food stamps.
Some are struggling to pay back student loans and cover basic living expenses as they submit scores of applications for a limited pool of full-time academic positions. Others are trying to raise families or pay for their children's college expenses on the low and fluctuating pay they receive as professors off the tenure track, a group that now makes up 70 percent of faculties. Many bounce on and off unemployment or welfare during semester breaks. And some adjuncts have found themselves trying to make ends meet by waiting tables or bagging groceries alongside their students.
Of the 22 million Americans with master's degrees or higher in 2010, about 360,000 were receiving some kind of public assistance, according to the latest Current Population Survey released by the U.S. Census Bureau in March 2011. In 2010, a total of 44 million people nationally received food stamps or some other form of public aid, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
So, I thought the point of making the investment to get more education was to not rely on government assistance. I want to be careful about my tone, since I was a welfare recipient as a child. I don't think we should stigmatize men or women who need assistance, but this is a frightening precedent for institutions to set for women and families. Any institutional structure that does not pay its employees enough to care for themselves or for their families is a structure that needs to change. If you are educating future leaders of America, you should not be bagging groceries right next to them.
I thought food stamps were dependent on government poverty guidelines, but it actually seems easier than that to qualify as long as you don't own anything. I was under the mistaken impression that pursuing a tenured position at a college by earning a Ph.D. would enable me to avoid the awful Black Welfare Queen stereotype for the rest of my life, but apparently that's not the case.
As writer Stacia L. Brown points out, this is a problem not just for tenure track professors, but also for adjuncts, since those of us who have worked on low-wage contracts for a few months at a time now comprise 70 percent of U.S. college faculty. What makes this even more annoying is that women who are in the ranks of academia are the majority in areas that aren't well-paying anyway: Chris Blattman, a professor of political science and economics at Yale University, took a look at the percentages of women in all fields last year. The top five areas where more than 60 percent of Ph.Ds were awarded to women were Psychology, English Literature, Anthropology, Linguistics, and Sociology.
Women now earn 57 percent of bachelors degrees and 59 percent of masters degrees. According to the Survey of Earned Doctorates, 2006 was the fifth year in a row in which the majority of research Ph.D.'s awarded to U.S. citizens went to women. Women earn more Ph.D.'s than men in the humanities, social sciences, education, and life sciences. Women now serve as presidents of Harvard, MIT, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, and other leading research universities. But elsewhere, the figures are different. Women comprise just 19 percent of tenure-track professors in math, 11 percent in physics, 10 percent in computer science, and 10 percent in electrical engineering.
And the pipeline does not promise statistical parity any time soon: women are now earning 24 percent of the Ph.D.'s in the physical sciences—way up from the 4 percent of the 1960s, but still far behind the rate they are winning doctorates in other fields. "The change is glacial," says Debra Rolison, a physical chemist at the Naval Research Laboratory.
Over at Feministing, Jos breaks down more horrific statistics in a post called "Women need a Ph.D to earn as much as men with a BA." Say word: "Women earn less at all degree levels, even when they work as much as men. On average, women who work full-time, full-year earn 25 percent less than men, even at similar education levels."
Ironically, I'm considering getting a doctorate degree. So I'm definitely interested in whether or not it's the best economic route to take. The evidence doesn't really stack up. Women in academia that I've talked to have complained that the academic world and womanhood can sometimes be incompatible (which, apparently, is also true in life). These findings take things to a whole new level, though.