What I learned in grad school, part n

Earlier, I answered the question, “how long does grad school take?“, at least in the case of yours truly.  After that one, perhaps the next-most asked question is, “how much does grad school cost?

The cost of grad school can mean many things to many people, so a few words are in order about what I mean by the cost of grad school. First, like most STEM graduate students (that’s science, technology, engineering and mathematics in case you didn’t know), I received a stipend from my institution for my entire time of enrollment. In addition, my institution covered my tuition payments. So I can confidently say that from a certain perspective, I made money by going to grad school.

This cursory analysis misses two important facts. One, obviously, is the opportunity costs of grad school. Rather than earning (?) my stipend for twelve semesters, I could have been working in industry with my Masters in Engineering, undoubtedly for a much higher income. Another fact, quantitatively less important but still a major annoyance to my mind, was fees charged by my school. FEES FOR EVERYTHING: submitting a thesis, registering late, student life fees, etc.

So I decided to get quantitative about what grad school cost me.  I went to my registrar’s office and asked for a record of all my financial transactions with the school since my matriculation.  And they obliged!   Here’s some of the data:

My Grad School Tuition

My Grad School Tuition

This is a chart of the cumulative tuition billed to me (red) and payed on my behalf by my school (blue). Luckily, the curves end at the same point. They kept their promise to pay all my tuition. But what was interesting to me was the slope of the line. First, it was constant, which means tuition wasn’t increased sharply over my time at grad school. Second, the slope was about 109, which has units of $ / day. That is, my doctoral degree cost taxpayers about $109 for each day I was in school! That’s alot! Interestingly, it is probably not too far off from the opportunity cost of grad school: that is, the difference between my probable salary had I gone to industry and the stipend I received as a graduate student. The cynical view would be that grad schools pocket the difference between what I “deserve” to have earned and what I actually earned. Of course, that view fails to consider what I gained by going to grad school (see below) and so isn’t necessarily very accurate.

My school, a private institution, is perhaps slightly unusual in that it does not reduce tuition for late-stage doctoral students who don’t take classes.  Whether or not I received any classroom instruction, whether or not I regularly interacted with any faculty, my school charged full tuition.  This money was payed out of research grants held by my advisor, and out of a fellowship that the school awarded to me.  Both of these monies derived from federal sources. 

Especially in the late stages of my grad school career, I wonder if tuition was just a vehicle to transfer federal research dollars into the school’s general fund.  It’s somewhat surprising thought, because my institution was well-known for charging a relatively high overhead on grants and fellowships. Maybe even that high overhead was not enough.  I would love to hear alternate explanations for grad student tuition being this high, though — maybe I am missing something.

But as I mentioned, tuition isn’t the only charge that grad schools levy on their students. Here’s a chart showing fees my institution levied on me (blue), and the money I paid them (out of my stipend, in red) over time. I couldn’t separate money I paid for health care from money I paid for other fees.

hCumulative fees levied/payed by/to grad school

Cumulative fees levied/payed by/to grad school

Fees are much less than tuition, amounting to between $0.76 and $0.83 per day. So it may seem like my complaining about fees is misplaced. But fees amounted to about 1% of my pre-tax stipend. Subtracting off taxes and food and housing costs from my stipend is an estimate of “potentially disposable income”. My crude estimate is that fees accounted for about 6% of my “potentially” disposable income. That’s a lot, especially when admittance letters that schools send out do not mention this information.  I don’t think my graduate institution is alone in assessing educational fees to graduate students, but nonetheless I hope they reform!  The fees schools charge grad students should be clearly specified in the initial letter of admittance schools send to prospective students.  That way, students would be able to properly account for the true costs of attending graduate school.

In this post and my previous one I’ve given some hard data on what my grad school experience was like. Unfortunately, in education, hard data is easier to obtain for the costs than for the benefits. In later posts, I will try to be a bit more introspective to summarize how I think I benefited from grad school.


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