Graduate students discuss affordability in research, internships

Wednesday, August 7, 2019 - 7:34pm

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Ruchita Iyer/Daily

University of Michigan graduate students have encountered road blocks when it comes to affordability on campus.

Over the summer, Environment and Sustainability graduate student Matt Sehrsweeny, who does not identify as low income, had a realization many of his less privileged peers may have already come across — graduate school is difficult to finance without a substantial, predictable source of income.

Sehrsweeny was doing field research for his thesis when he first came across the issue. He had received grant funding for his work but often had to pay out-of-pocket for expenses such as travel, lodging and conference attendance, only to be reimbursed later.

“It’s not like we’re in a situation where we’re waiting months to get reimbursed, but it could be a week, it could be two weeks, and that is exceptionally difficult for a lot of people,” Sehrsweeny said. “There’s just this assumption that if you’re a grad student here, you can put up a whole ton of money and wait to get reimbursed, whenever that might happen. That presumes having a back-stop, a safety net, some sort of cushion that a lot of students don’t have.”

Sehrsweeny noted instances where he and his peers had to pay over $1,000 at a time. He also said graduate students in STEM fields face even steeper costs due to the nature of their research.

Sehrsweeny said the reimbursement process took him by surprise, and he believes others feel the same.

“I was surprised,” Sehrsweeny said. “I just felt like, ‘I got the grant. They’re going to give me the grant.’ Not at all … It’s almost infantilizing that they don’t trust me. I got the grant; I should be able to do whatever the hell I want with it.”

According to the National Science Foundation, the University of Michigan trails John Hopkins University as the second best American research institution in terms of annual research and development expenditures. More than $1.55 billion at the University and $109 million from industry sponsored donors amount to total annual expenditures.

While some of that funding is delegated to undergraduate research opportunities, the bulk is invested in the University’s graduate student population. The University is home to more than 15,000 graduate students at the University’s Ann Arbor campus alone, with over 1,000 more on both the Flint and Dearborn campuses.

Sehrsweeny said he suspects the grant funding is awarded through reimbursement due to liability and accountability concerns, though he’s never asked. Regardless of motive, Sehrsweeny still believes the system inhibits students who unable to afford additional expenses.

Sehrsweeny said he sees himself as among the higher income students in the University’s graduate schools. He believes he has the responsibility as an ally in this instance to voice his concern over the issue while those directly affected may not have the power to do so.

“This is just one of many, many components of the higher education system that keep out lower income students or first-gen students because of these structures that are in place … so there are by definition fewer lower-income students to raise these concerns,” Sehrsweeny said.

In the Fall 2018 semester, racial and ethnic minorities comprised 19.9 percent of all graduate and professional students, excluding international students. That number has been increasing since it began being tracked in 2010. However, in 2018, the percentage of international students decreased while that of white students increased, both of which was for the first time since data was made available.

Social Work student Laura Rall self-identifies as low income and currently serves as president of Affordable Michigan, a student organization established in 2018 to aid low-income students on matters of campus affordability.

Affordable Michigan was created in response to a campus affordability guide published by Central Student Government in 2018, under alumni Anushka Sarkar and Nadine Jawad’s administration. The guide was criticized by low-income students as being “out-of-touch,” and now-alum Lauren Schandevel published her own guide, entitled “Being Not-Rich at UM,” in response.

Schandevel used the guide’s momentum to establish a base for the advocacy of low-income students, which soon became Affordable Michigan. Rall has since taken over, and the struggles dealt with by low-income students at the University continue.

Rall reaffirmed Sehrsweeny’s sentiments, explaining how her transition from undergraduate to graduate school at the University further strained her socioeconomic status.

“Grad school is a lot harder just because undergraduate students have so many more grants, federal financial aid, state financial aid and U-M scholarships that are offered, and once you go into grad school, you don’t get that government aid anymore outside of student loans,” Rall said.

University Spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald said in an email to The Daily that the University actually provides funding to a much greater proportion of doctoral students than undergraduates, with 96 percent receiving some type of aid. However, Rall is not applicable for these programs as a masters student.

Rall does, however, meet the requirements for certain opportunities described by Fitzgerald as provided by the Rackham Graduate School “to help graduate students meet educational and living expenses.”

“Support ranges from large competitive fellowships that pay tuition and stipends, to targeted grants that assist with foreign language study, dissertation research and conference travel, to emergency grants and awards designed to help students manage student loan debt,” Fitzgerald wrote.

Despite these opportunities, Rall and Sehrsweeny still see gaps in the system. Sehrsweeny noted the existence of these programs, but he admitted he knew little about them besides their “complicated and onerous” reputation.

Rall also blames graduate school’s rigorous nature for a part of the added difficulty it wages on low-income students.

“There is definitely that difference between undergraduate having a lot more opportunities to get funding for their education versus grad school, and then also just the demands in grad school — I personally believe — are a lot higher,” Rall said. “Where I could work two jobs throughout my undergraduate career, I can’t, I don’t have the time to do that during grad school.”

Rall does not have to do thesis research for her masters program, but she is required to complete an 8-credit unpaid internship throughout the semester on which she still pays full tuition. Rall said she and her peers had begun to petition the University to reduce tuition in accommodation of that time commitment, but the movement lost its momentum as they got further into the semester.

Rall hopes to address this and other issues affecting low income graduate students through Affordable Michigan in the future.

“People are taking loans out to pay for their tuition. People are taking loans out to have to pay for those up-front costs … so even if you’re getting reimbursed later, you’re still paying interest on anything you’ve taken out,” Rall said. “I can’t imagine the stress that puts on (them), having to wait.”