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December 17, 2014

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With that pay, no way, many would-be graduate students tell UNLV

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  • Leisl Carr Childers, 36, a doctoral candidate in UNLV's history department, talks about having children.
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  • Carr Childers talks about the daily sacrifices she and her husband make to save money.
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  • Carr Childers on why the sacrifices are worthwhile.
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“A recipe for poverty,” one student called it. Not something to flaunt, professors agree.

The scant pay UNLV gives its best graduate students to teach and research seems contrary to administrators’ stated goal of transforming their institution into a premier university.

For nine months of work, UNLV doctoral candidates typically get $12,000. Master’s students get less.

Faculty members say those skimpy sums are part of the reason UNLV often loses to other universities in the tussle for the nation’s best graduate students. Some schools pay twice as much as UNLV does. And in academia, where the reputation of a university rises and falls with the quality of the researchers and scholarship it produces, UNLV’s funding situation is bad news.

The problem is so acute that fixing it tops a list of priorities that emerged from a yearlong planning process at UNLV, President David Ashley said.

As a result, he added, administrators are looking to set aside more money for graduate stipends in the next biennium, even in the face of a budget crunch. Departments could use the extra dollars to raise the number of scholars they fund or to boost scholars’ pay.

About one in four faculty members who work with graduate students signed a petition asking Ashley to devote $4 million to $5 million more per year to graduate pay, said geoscience Associate Professor Andrew Hanson, who has been gathering signatures for about three months.

“Without such funding, graduate education at UNLV will suffer and decline instead of improving and growing as we believe it should,” the petition states.

History department graduate coordinator Elizabeth Nelson offers a stark example: Her department will have no new doctoral candidates this fall. Three applicants rejected the school’s offer.

“We had excellent candidates turn us down because financial packages at other institutions were in some cases double what we offer,” Nelson said. “So we just can’t compete.”

Brandon Davis, 30, one of the students the history program had been courting, said money mattered in his decision. This fall, he will head to the University of British Columbia, which offered him about twice what UNLV did for his first year.

Departments can use existing funds to increase stipends, but few have done so because raising pay for even a few graduate assistants means reducing the number of students who get money.

And not everyone sees boosting graduate pay as a pressing matter. Some professors who did not sign the petition said that in a time of budget cuts, raising graduate wages was not their most pressing issue. Others said they had been too busy to consider the document.

UNLV set aside an estimated $9 million in state money this year to support about 780 graduate student workers, known as graduate assistants. Outside grants and contracts worth an estimated $4 million took care of another 300 or so.

Those figures include partial fee waivers and contributions the university made toward health insurance for students who enrolled in an optional school program. The school also waived an estimated $6.1 million worth of out-of-state tuition for graduate assistants.

Added funding for graduate pay would come from multiple sources, possibly including revenue that rising graduate student fees are expected to generate, Ashley said. But administrators do not yet know how much UNLV will be able to increase its budget for graduate assistants.

“We do not have a dollar figure yet, and it will unfortunately be smaller than we would all like due to the budget stress,” Ashley said in an e-mail.

In the contest for graduate talent, UNLV is at a disadvantage even when wages are factored out. Though some of the young university’s programs are sterling, it is competing with brand-name colleges that have long track records of producing high-quality scholars. Given that reality, offering competitive pay takes on greater importance.

Small stipends pose a special challenge to departments in science and engineering, fields in which graduate students can secure the biggest paychecks from other schools, said Hanson, chairman of a council of faculty members who coordinate graduate studies.

But measly pay can dampen prospects for programs in all areas.

Besides complicating recruitment, low wages tempt graduate students to take outside jobs, slicing into the time they have for school. And that can hurt the quality of their teaching and the scholarship they produce in the university’s name.

Though graduate assistants are supposed to put in no more than 20 hours per week at their university jobs, many report working more.

If UNLV is to become a research engine, the state must invest enough in its best students to allow them to focus on their work instead of on their finances, said Eugene Moehring, chairman of the history department.

“That’s how you become important,” he said. “You produce faculty and students who succeeded in a big way. You’ve got to invest some time and money unless you want to let California handle all the Ph.D. students.”

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