A couple of days ago, Carnegie Mellon University deposited $1,147 and some change into Alex Tabor’s checking account. The bulk of that comes from his twice-a-month stipend as a doctoral student in the history department, which shakes out to $27,000 a year before taxes. That’s more than he’s ever made as a graduate student employee. 

Still, it hasn’t been enough to make ends meet. 

Tabor, 29, doesn’t have financial support from his family. He recently moved in with his partner, but when he lived on his own, he’d regularly cut back on groceries and constantly feel hungry. He’d avoid using his car. He’d turn off the heat in his apartment and put on more layers instead. 

He sometimes stops by the university’s food pantry, and he tried applying for food stamps — only to find out he was over the income restriction by $18. Along with his work at CMU, last year he brought in about an extra $4,000 by performing property maintenance, conducting research for the county’s Department of Human Services and providing academic support to men who are incarcerated.

“I can’t make my money get any bigger,” Tabor said. “How do I shrink the expenses that I do have to handle? Well, I can eat less. I can use less electricity.”

Universities have increasingly relied on the labor of graduate students to help teach classes, conduct research and mentor their undergraduate peers, providing them with stipends in exchange. Along with contingent faculty members, they made up the vast majority of higher education’s workforce by 2017.

While not all graduate students receive stipends, many of those that do in Pittsburgh — and across the country —  say their universities fail to pay them livable or adequate wages. 

PublicSource spoke with 18 graduate students at CMU and the University of Pittsburgh about their stipends, some of which are below living wage estimates. Some have worked side jobs or applied for government assistance. Several get by only because they’re supported by a partner’s income, but they still face financial pressures, from rising rents to a lack of funds for emergencies. Others say that while they can live off the stipends, the totals don’t reflect the work they do.

Whether it’s switching from grocery shopping at Giant Eagle to the less-expensive Aldi or putting off dreams of homeownership, graduate students said the penny-pinching that’s required forces them to make daily sacrifices. And their options for supplementing their income can be limited: Some departments prohibit or discourage students from working jobs outside of the university during their appointments.

Nationwide, graduate students are pushing back against low wages and securing victories in a growing labor movement. The country’s largest strike in higher education, at the University of California system, ended in December with students gaining raises as high as 80%. And more than 100 Temple University students began striking in January, prompting the Philadelphia university to withhold their health care benefits and withdraw their tuition remission.

Collective organizing at CMU has bubbled up in the past year and is reemerging at Pitt after a vote to unionize failed in 2019. These students have a fundamentally different relationship with the university than the thousands of undergraduates do.

We’re workers when they want us to be, but then we’re graduate students when they don’t want to pay us,” said Michael Laudenbach, a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in rhetoric at CMU.

Stipends are ‘survivable,’ but not always livable

In Pittsburgh, an annual living wage for an adult who works full-time and doesn’t have children is $33,387 before taxes, according to an estimate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A more conservative estimate would be $30,209 a year, if the budgeted medical expenses were excluded.

The monthly minimum stipend for doctoral students at CMU, new as of this fall, amounts to $27,000 a year. At Pitt, the minimum stipend for all graduate students is $9,000 per term. Both fall short of what’s considered a living wage for the city. 

When Laudenbach came to CMU in 2019, his stipend was fairly livable, but that’s changed since the pandemic. For more than a year, he worked as a building manager for his small Squirrel Hill apartment complex to receive a rent decrease. When he sought to move, he couldn’t find any affordable places in the neighborhood. He wound up in Wilkinsburg in spring 2022, where he lives with his partner.

Laudenbach — whose base stipend now amounts to $28,440 before taxes — comes from a low-income background and sometimes supports his mother financially. He’s had to borrow money from his friends to get through the month while he waits for his stipend to land in his bank account. He’s currently teaching two classes and earning double his base stipend.

“I’m used to living paycheck-to-paycheck, my whole life. This is more money than my mom ever made when I was a kid,” he said. “It’s not terrible, but it’s not livable enough to the point where you can focus on your research, or it’s not compensating the amount of work that we’re actually doing to benefit the university.” 

CMU stipends vary by school and department, students said, while Pitt’s vary by position. In the previous academic year, surveyed doctoral students reported earning $27,000 a year in CMU’s philosophy department and $36,720 in computational biology. 

CMU neither provided a breakdown of stipends by department, despite repeated requests, nor explained why such differences in pay exist. Students attributed the differences to greater outside funding in STEM fields and a lack of institutional investment in certain programs, particularly those in the humanities.

At both universities, students say it’s harder to rely solely on stipends if they have children or lack familial or spousal support. Take Christopher Thyberg and Logan Carpenter:

Thyberg, a fourth-year doctoral candidate in Pitt’s School of Social Work, is married to someone with a full salary. The salary allows them to live comfortably. Thyberg’s $10,740 per-term stipend covers rent and basic necessities. Without that support, Thyberg said he’d likely be “just barely getting by.”

Carpenter, a fourth-year doctoral student in CMU’s physics department, supports his wife and two young daughters on his stipend, which amounts to $31,500 a year before taxes. The family lives in a one-bedroom apartment, but because his daughters share the bedroom, it’s more of a studio for him and his wife. The complex has mice, though there weren’t any in their apartment at the time. They don’t go out to eat or visit their families out West as often as they’d like. 

“These are the kinds of quality-of-life exchanges that we can make to make it work, but, obviously, it’d be better if we didn’t have to,” said Carpenter, who referred to his stipend as “survivable.” For a family like his, MIT estimates a living wage would be about $76,000 a year. 

In a statement, CMU spokesperson Peter Kerwin said the university “continuously” works to respond to graduate students’ needs and improve the support it offers.

Pitt spokesperson Jared Stonesifer said the university has increased its stipends by 4.25% this year and provides students with free transportation and full health insurance coverage, which reduces their cost of living.

Who gets paid, and who can work outside jobs?

“The way groceries have been going up, I was just getting really nervous,” Noelle Cremer said as they navigated the produce section of Trader Joe’s one Saturday evening in February. Cremer, a third-year master’s student in costume production at CMU, had just qualified for food stamps. 

It had been an extensive process, involving about an hourlong application and a phone interview. But Cremer will now receive $281 a month, the maximum allotment for a single-person household. “I’m happy that I pushed through and took care of it because I feel a lot more secure now,” they said. Their groceries that evening totaled $91.71.

Cremer does not receive a stipend from CMU, they said. Students in the School of Drama, who assist with more than 15 productions each year, receive partial tuition waivers, according to the school’s graduate student handbook. CMU didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment.

Graduate student Noelle Cremer has offset their living expenses and remaining tuition costs through work-study hours, additional loans and financial support from their parents. (Photo by Amaya Lobato-Rivas / PublicSource)

Other universities take a different approach. Temple’s School of Theater, Film and Media Arts offers stipends for teaching assistantships, along with full or partial tuition waivers. The University of Massachusetts Amherst offers full tuition waivers and paid assistantships to students. The University of Southern Mississippi covers all tuition and pays a monthly stipend for assistantships. “USM Theatre pays for ALL of its graduate students,” the website boasts. 

“I feel like CMU definitely has the money and is on the same level as those other institutions,” said Cremer, who added that they’d be content with a full tuition waiver. 

To offset their living expenses and tuition costs, Cremer has taken on work-study hours during the semester, worked in the summer, piled on loans and relied on financial support from their parents. 

But if students like Cremer wanted to work outside of CMU during the academic year, the university could prohibit them from doing so. The School of Drama’s graduate student handbook states that students must receive approval from the head of school and all faculty involved in their curriculum to take on external employment — or their “participation in the program is subject to review.”

There’s a patchwork of departmental policies on outside jobs at CMU. The Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering prohibits students from working outside jobs during their appointment. The history department doesn’t explicitly prohibit students from working outside jobs but states that their employment cannot interfere with their studies.

Kerwin did not provide an explanation for the policy differences.

“This is all discrete stuff that you do, and then if people find out and get mad about it, you’re just like, ‘Well, whatever, pay me more,’” said Tabor, the history student with a $27,000 annual stipend. “It often leaves you in this incredulous place, where it’s like, ‘Well, what did you expect?’”

Stonesifer said that working Pitt students are “discouraged” from pursuing outside employment but do not need to receive approval. That wasn’t always the case: One student’s appointment letter for the spring 2020 semester states that they must gain approval before taking another job or risk the loss of the position and its benefits. 

The recommendation “is in response to the rigorous nature of our graduate/PhD programs and our desire for students to succeed,” Stonesifer said in an email. 

Organizing efforts resurface at Pitt, grow at CMU

Many students who spoke with PublicSource shared a common desire: They want their universities to increase their stipends, with some calling for their wages to track inflation and, at CMU, to be equitable across departments. Students at both universities are organizing to secure these improvements, but their efforts have differed by campus.  

In April 2019, eligible graduate students at Pitt voted against unionization by just 39 votes. Though the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board determined that the university engaged in unfair labor practices during the election, it later said Pitt’s actions wouldn’t have changed the outcome. The board’s final ruling, in Pitt’s favor, came in fall 2021.

“We know that we lost, so we can restart,” said organizer Pat Healy, a fourth-year doctoral student in information science. They recognize that the renewed effort may face challenges — the continued embrace of remote work hampers canvassing, and organizing overworked students remains difficult — but they’re encouraged by recent union victories. Pitt’s faculty unionized in 2021, with 71% voting in favor, and students at Boston and Yale universities voted to unionize this winter with overwhelming margins of support. 

“This is clearly a completely different labor movement we’re currently in, and we hope that we can, as we continue to build toward that next election, be another example of that,” Healy said. “I think we can be. I just think there’s a lot of work to do.”

Doctoral student Jessica Guo sits in a common area in CMU’s Heinz College. (Photo by Clare Sheedy/ PublicSource)

About three years after the union vote at Pitt, CMU Better, a coalition of students across colleges, launched a poster campaign to call attention to pay disparities at the university. CMU announced the minimum stipend increase for doctoral students days later. Since then, organizing efforts have cropped up in departments or colleges.

This summer, Laudenbach and more than 20 other graduate students in the English department formed a collective to demand $35,000 stipends for the current academic year, as well as a $17 minimum hourly rate for teaching and research assistants. The department agreed to the hourly rate, but instead of raising the stipend, it created an emergency fund for students to request additional money. Now, students are trying to organize across departments. 

Jessica Guo, a second-year doctoral student in CMU’s joint statistics and public policy program, co-authored a petition for stipend increases this summer on behalf of doctoral students in the Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy. The authors demanded that the college raise the minimum stipend to $34,200 by the fall semester and provide students with $1,500 in inflation relief, which faculty and staff received in the summer. 

In response, the college distributed one-time inflation relief of $2,000 to doctoral students and implemented a 5% base stipend increase, bringing the base year-one stipend to $28,500, among other changes.

“I think the narrative should shift,” said Thyberg at Pitt. “Rather than seeing it as that we’re just asking for more, it’s that we’re asking for a fair compensation for all that we provide.”

Emma Folts covers higher education at PublicSource, in partnership with Open Campus. She can be reached at emma@publicsource.org.

This story was fact-checked by Betul Tuncer.

Higher education reporter for PublicSource in partnership with Open Campus.