What is the Truth About Stipends?

Over the next few months, you can expect to hear a lot about the wonderful benefits that we get from Penn State. They’ll claim that once you add tuition into the stipend that we are making nearly $50,000 on average, even though we can’t use tuition waivers to pay rent or buy groceries. Or that they’ve benchmarked us against other schools and so we shouldn’t be worried. One of their favorite talking points, however, is that we’ve actually seen lots of increases in stipends over the last few years.

sadfReading this, you’d think we’re roling in cash. But how much truth is there to this?

We looked at stipend info from 1996/1997 up until this year (although we were unable to find information from 2006 to 2007). In real dollars, there has only been an average 0.5% annual increase in stipends. This means that over the last 5 years, the average increase is actually only about 1.7%. Even then, this increase trumpeted by the university ignores the fact that at least some of the larger increases – such as from 2013/2014 to 2014/2015 – came because there were increased costs placed on graduate workers (in the form of increased health care costs).

The point here is simple: not only have our raises been much smaller than reported, that small raise was immediately gobbled back up. Even as graduate workers’ importance to teaching and researching continues to increase, we've barely seen any change in how Penn State values it.

This is particularly disappointing because many graduate employees are struggling to get by. Even the Graduate School acknowledges that stipends in some colleges are insufficient, but as with any bureaucracy of this size, action has been slow, ineffectual, and have come about only after tireless advocacy by the graduate employees themselves.

Until we have an equal seat at the table with administration, it’s all too easy for them to throw us on the chopping block. This is especially urgent given the upcoming budget challenges for Penn State. In responding to a question about tuition freeze at the Faculty Senate on Tuesday, January 24th, President Barron discussed these challenges. In particular he was concerned that years of ignoring maintenance on the physical plant would mean that ‘hard decisions’ would be made. Without a voice in the decision-making process, freezing – or worse, cutting – our pay and benefits could easily be one of those “hard decisions.” If administrators were faced with a salary cut, they’d never take it lying down – neither should you.