July 22, 2020
I’m a graduate student, and I’m rent-burdened. That means over one-third of the pay from my university research job goes toward rent in a shared apartment, and, as a result, there isn’t much left over for other essentials—like food, utilities, and gas. It’s even harder to grow my savings account. Unexpected medical costs have also been a struggle to cover on such a small income: Even with university-provided medical insurance, the tests, appointments, and eventual surgery drained my small emergency fund.
While I was lucky enough to have my family help offset the costs, many others have nowhere to turn when money gets tight. What if I’d been forced to choose between surgery and rent? Or worse, what if I’d fallen behind on rent and been evicted from my apartment near campus?
There are many joys and privileges that come from being a graduate student: pursuing my passions, developing expertise, and working with specialists in my field. It’s a time of personal and intellectual growth—a challenging and exciting stepping stone for future ambitions. Yet, these positive experiences are often a tradeoff for an adequate and affordable home.
The many definitions of housing instability include high housing costs, poor housing quality, unstable neighborhoods, overcrowding, and homelessness. While the phrase “housing insecure” might prompt us to think about specific populations (including the elderly and lower-income households), the reality is that housing challenges can affect anyone—recent estimates show that 40.6 percent of renters spend more than a third of their income on housing. For many graduate students, housing insecurity is a way of life.
Housing costs can present a unique challenge for graduate students—some must rely on loans, while others receive limited funding packages and stipends.There’s often little provided for expenses such as housing and other essentials.
And the math simply doesn’t work out with typical PhD stipends, which range from $20,000 to $30,000 per year—breaking down to roughly $1,670 to $2,500 per month. If one were to follow the advice that rent should be no more than 30 percent of your income, those with the lowest stipends would be able to afford housing that costs $500 per month, while those with the highest stipends could afford $750 per month.
This makes finding affordable housing in expensive college towns—such as Ann Arbor, Michigan; Palo Alto, California; or Cambridge, Massachusetts—nearly impossible. In Ann Arbor, for example, MIT’s living wage calculator estimates that a single adult would need to earn an income of $27,672 annually in order to comfortably afford the cost of housing, utilities, transportation, and food. The stipend for graduate student research assistants at the University of Michigan is $21,779—approximately $6,000 below the estimated need.
One widely proposed solution is for graduate students to look for additional work to boost their income. However, many programs cap the number of hours students can work on campus due to budget requirements, and others discourage—or even ban—participants from engaging in outside employment. And even if students find jobs, it’s often difficult to balance work with the many responsibilities of a rigorous graduate curriculum.
It’s not just university rules or tight budgets, either—several other factors limit housing options for graduate students. Lack of affordable rental stock in many college towns is partially driven by new construction projects prioritizing high-end apartments. Many students prefer to live close to campus, since not everyone has access to a car or reliable public transportation. Few buy homes, either because of the high costs of down payments or plans to move after graduation.
Many graduate students look for roommates to offset these high living costs, but that can create other problems. A graduate student’s home often doubles as an additional office space, which requires an environment conducive to productivity at nearly all hours. It’s unsurprising, then, that graduate students often find living together to be the best compromise for finding affordable housing.
Despite these issues, of course, millions of graduate students survive just fine on their stipend. Many will eventually reminisce about ramen noodle dinners and $1 beer nights.
But the problem worsens when we bring in other factors, such as preexisting debts or an unforeseen crisis. Students often cannot actively save money while in school, leaving them financially vulnerable to catastrophe—such as the current COVID-19 pandemic. It’s been widely documented how this sudden and significant change in ability to work makes people more vulnerable to housing loss. Those from wealthy (often white) households can rely on family support in case of the unexpected, but many students of color and those from less privileged backgrounds can’t do the same. Some graduate students are calling for summer grants to be expanded in order to pay for rent amidst the public health and economic crises.
There are several policy options that could help support graduate students facing housing insecurity. College towns could adopt broader inclusionary zoning ordinances, for instance, or universities could partner with local governments to develop affordable housing options. We must protect current tax policies that ensure tuition assistance and employer-provided insurance benefits aren’t counted as taxable income, and eligibility for student loan forgiveness should be expanded, or interest waived, to help ease debt burdens.
To fully address the complex challenges of housing instability and vulnerability, graduate students must be included in the conversation. As universities struggle with virtual classes this fall and beyond, students will need affordable, quality housing to log on from. Graduate students already face a lot of stress—exhaustive reading lists, teaching those rowdy undergrads, writing their thesis or dissertation. Let's take housing out of the equation.