May 9, 2012 -- The life of an academic who pays hundreds of thousands of dollars in tuition and lives off stipends and scholarhips is becoming more financially treacherous. A skyrocketing number of Americans with Ph.D.s say they are facing a reality in which they are turning to food stamps to survive.
One in six Americans received food stamps or other public assistance last year, but the number of people with a Ph.D. or Masters degree who receive that aid has tripled in the past two years, according to government data.
In a story published by The Chronicle of Higher Education this week Ph.D. holders and students who are teaching on the non-tenure track in community colleges and universities bemoaned their prospects.
Elliott Stegall, 51, is pursuing a Ph.D. in film studies at Florida State University while he teaches two English courses at Northwest Florida State College in Niceville, Fla.
To help support their two young children, he and his wife rely, in part, on food stamps, Medicaid and aid from the USDA program, Women, and Infants and Children (WIC).
"I tend to look at my experience as a humanist, as someone who is fascinated by human culture," he told the Chronicle. "Maybe it was a way of hiding from the reality in which I found myself. I never thought I'd be among the poor."
He and his wife also have worked part-time jobs as house painters and cleaners and food caterers.
"As a man, I felt like I was a failure. I had devoted myself to the world of cerebral activity. I had learned a practical skill that was elitist," he said. "Perhaps I should have been learning a skill that the economy supports."
Various factors, mostly related to the down economy and state and local educational budget cuts, have helped drive educational institutions to rely more on part-time or adjunct professors. They are paid much less than regular professors and get few or no benefits.
Overall, 44 million people were on food stamps on a monthly basis in 2011, compared with 17 million in 2000, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The number of people with Ph.D.s who received some kind of public assistance more than tripled to 33,655 in 2010 from 9,776 in 2007, according to Austin Nichols, a senior researcher from the Urban Institute, who used data from the U.S. Census Bureau and U.S. Bureau of Labor.
"While on average higher learning still results in higher salaries, the promise of that financial payoff isn't materializing for some," Sara Hebel, senior editor with The Chronicle of Higher Education, said. "And for growing numbers of people with advanced degrees, they have not been insulated from financial hardship for a number of reasons."
Of the 22 million Americans with master's degrees or higher in 2010, about 360,000 were receiving some kind of public assistance, according to the latest Current Population Survey released by the U.S. Census Bureau in March 2011.
The number of people with master's degrees who received some kind of aid grew to 293,029 from 101,682 over the same three-year period.
The average salary for U.S. professors is $82,556, according to an annual report from the American Association of University Professors, released in April.
"People off the tenure track now make up 70 percent of faculties. People in those positions often have working conditions that can be tough, including not knowing from semester to semester how many courses they might teach," Hebel said.
That leads to an inconsistent income for adjunct professors, which is often much lower than a tenured faculty member.
"On average, higher educational attainment does translate into higher salaries. That's the promise of education," Hebel said. "It's just that for a growing numbers of people, advanced degrees haven't insulated them from financial hardship."