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November 1, 2014

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In college, learning to stretch $10,000 or $12,000

Long years of slogging toward a master's or doctoral degree can transform graduate students into coupon-clipping, Top Ramen-eating experts at scrimping.

Leisl Carr Childers, a doctoral candidate in UNLV's history department, drives a 1993 Ford Explorer with 320,000 miles on it.

Her classmate Richard Johnson has cut back on sports and music lessons for his children. His wife is postponing her dream of finishing college. Dinner at the Johnsons' is more likely to feature chili than steak.

Carr Childers and Johnson, a master's student, work as graduate assistants - teaching, grading, researching and otherwise buttressing UNLV's academic missions. The school waives most of these laborers' tuition and fees and typically pays them $10,000 to $12,000 for nine months of work - amounts that have stayed stagnant for more than five years even as the cost of living has risen.

"We're well aware of the problem," said Kate Hausbeck, senior associate dean of UNLV's graduate college. "Our graduate students don't have the same quality of life that they had several years ago. And even the quality of life they had then was fairly simple."

UNLV has about 750 state-funded graduate assistants. And with Nevada officials looking to pare spending, university leaders probably won't have much luck persuading legislators to give more money to support graduate students anytime soon.

So UNLV staff are making a stronger effort to inform students about scholarships, and administrators are finding ways to play with the dollars they have.

In the past, the school mandated that master's students receive $10,000 over two semesters and doctoral students $12,000. This academic year, the university began granting departments flexibility in how they offer money, setting $10,000 and $12,000 as minimums and allowing units to offer more.

But few faculty members have taken advantage of the new policy, which has an obvious downside: To give one person more money, a department would have to reduce its number of graduate assistants.

So penny-pinching students are adding frugality to the subjects they're learning to master.

"Who wants to be 34 years old and living at home? But this is a sacrifice that I made," said Debbie Rayner, who is studying for a master's degree in history.

After years of independence, she quit her longtime job as a dental office manager and moved back in with Mom and Dad to save money.

She's taken out tens of thousands of dollars in loans she hopes she'll be able to pay off by landing a job as a professor at a Christian or community college.

Her graduate assistantship has provided teaching experience she couldn't have acquired elsewhere, but she would appreciate even a couple of hundred dollars more a month.

As Carr Childers, 36, said, "Every purchase you make you ask, 'Do I really need this right now? What can I do to get by without it?' A meal that you have to eat out, a coffee that you want to buy. I just choose not to do these things too often."

Carr Childers' husband, Michael Childers, 34, is also a doctoral candidate and a graduate assistant. Their $900-a-month apartment gobbles up more than a third of their combined assistantship income.

They skimp on the small things from day to day and postpone the big ones: their dreams of having children, buying a home.

Carr Childers borrowed so much to support her undergraduate and master's work that she no longer qualifies for low-interest student loans. Her husband will be about $50,000 in debt by the time he earns his doctorate.

Like Johnson and Rayner, Carr Childers said she isn't angry - no one said the path to an advanced degree would be painless. But she wonders why Nevada doesn't pay more to educate the researchers it needs.

As the state pushes to diversify its economy, "Las Vegas needs its own intellectual elite as opposed to constantly importing intellectuals and thinkers from outside," said Nerses Kopalyan, who is enrolled in UNLV's master's program in political science.

The student stipends, Kopalyan said, amount to a "recipe for poverty." This at a school whose president makes more than $400,000 a year.

Higher education Board of Regents Vice Chairman Howard Rosenberg, a professor at UNR, is among academics who have suggested knocking off a bit from salaries at the top to lift pay at the bottom.

Graduate assistantships often fall short of their goal of allowing students to earn money while concentrating on their studies. Many workers put in more time than the weekly 20 hours for which the university pays.

The contracts graduate assistants sign forbid them to work more than 10 hours each week in outside employment. But some students violate their agreements, doubling as waiters or baristas. The more cautious ones toil in call centers or restaurant kitchens - places where they won't run into professors.

Administrators don't condone the outside jobs, Hausbeck said, but "I'm realistic enough to know that there are lots of students who work beyond that 10 hours whom we don't know about."

"The reality is there's no way to monitor this," she added. "It's an honor system."

When students breach their contracts, faculty members often sympathize and look the other way, operating under what amounts to a "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

Sarah Ziegler, a graduate assistant for two years, worked outside jobs even when she was pregnant. She graded, taught supplemental Saturday classes in local schools and worked for the Las Vegas Natural History Museum. She doesn't recall reporting her additional employment as required, but added that she never lied about it either.

"As long as you're doing what you need to do in lab, and you're doing what you need to do to teach your class, no one's going to come down on you and say, 'You can't work' ... They all understand that we can't live off what we make," said Ziegler, who earned a master's degree in biochemistry in 2006.

And low wages don't complicate life for just master's and doctoral candidates, but for school administrators, too. Other universities frequently outbid UNLV for the nation's best young talent.

UCLA, for example, gives graduate students who teach 20 hours a week $1,821 to $2,135 per month, depending on experience. Graduate researchers get $1,351 to $2,648 per month.

Even applicants who express a strong interest in UNLV retreat when they hear about the funding, said David Wrobel, a history professor.

"For every one who comes here on $10,000 or $12,000," he said, "there are others who are offered 14 and 16 and 18 (thousand) somewhere else, and they take it."

Becky Hess, who is pursuing a biochemistry master's degree, said she would have left Las Vegas had she not had family here. Schools in California and Texas offered her $10,000 more than UNLV did.

Ziegler is now in Galveston, Texas, pursuing a doctoral degree from the University of Texas Medical Branch. The school waives her fees and tuition and pays her $25,000 a year to be a graduate assistant.

Before moving away from Las Vegas, Ziegler considered universities in New York, St. Louis, Wisconsin and Iowa.

"When I was leaving UNLV and looking at Ph.D. stipends, there was none of them that were lower than $20,000 a year," she said.

Ziegler loved her time at UNLV - her program, her classmates, her faculty adviser.

But money matters, she said, and without it, her alma mater will have trouble courting young researchers.

To improve students' quality of life and UNLV's ability to compete for top scholars, Faculty Senate Chairman Bryan Spangelo said he'd like to see a boost of at least $5,000 a year in graduate assistant pay.

Pulling that off could prove a Herculean task.

Students, faculty and administrators all acknowledge the low salaries hurt their university. But like so much else at UNLV, the question is not whether a problem exists, but where to find the millions of dollars - and the will - to fix it.

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