While only a little more than 1 percent of those earning master and doctorate degrees rely on government assistance to make ends meet, the recent increase is alarming.
In an National Public Radio interview
, Stacey Patton, a writer for The Chronicle of Higher Education, laid some of the blame on the bad economy but also pointed at an overlap between graduate students and adjunct professors — "contingent" faculty who are working on contracts.
Patton says, in an effort to cut costs, universities increasingly hire these instructors instead of tenured faculty because they can be fired if the school finds them lacking or incompetent and their contracts are not renewed by virtue of their tenure.
Also, many Ph.D.s study under peripheral majors
that have little value in the marketplace, therefore, outside of teaching, prospective employers consider them overqualified for entry-level work and less qualified than business majors.
"What we continue to do in graduate schools is encourage people to take master's degrees and Ph.D.s [to fill those positions]," Patton says. "But the economy has taken such a hit, and so has higher education, so they do their work and come out and don't have opportunities for jobs."
In 2010, a report by The Chronicle of Higher Education showed that 360,000 of the 22 million Americans with graduate degrees received some kind of public assistance, triple the amount receiving aid just three years ago.
Patton told NPR’s Tell Me More host, Michel Martin, that many states have had to cut their higher education budgets and universities are defending their use of contingent faculty over hiring full-time faculty as economically necessary.
Another guest, Tony Yang, told the NPR host that he received his Ph.D. in history from the University of California, Riverside in 2009. Since graduating, Yang has worked on and off as a history lecturer, but depends on unemployment and food stamps to get by.
"One of the bravest things to do is to graduate into [the recession]," Yang tells NPR's Martin. "It's an incredibly difficult job market, and you're constantly hustling to try and get another job."
In his best post-graduate year Yang says he made about $32,000 - in his worst, about $10,000. He says there's a perception that if you have a doctorate, you automatically walk into a high-paying job.
"I have the prestige of holding a Ph.D., but that [isn't] paying the bills," he says.
Patton told NPR that she has heard a number of stories similar to Yang's, but fear of shame keeps many from speaking out.
With the economic troubles of the past few years, it's no surprise that the number of people using food stamps is soaring. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that an average of 44 million people were on food assistance last year; that's up from 17 million in 2000.
Though only a little more than 1 percent of graduate-degree holders are on government assistance, Patton says what worries her is that the number tripled in just three years.