Unpaid Student Wages, Higher Education Crisis, and the American “Brain Drain”

On 09 September 2013, Graduate Assistants United (GAU), an organized labor union of graduate assistants at the University of Florida staged a protest against the university’s administration.  The reason – the university had failed to pay 80 of its 4,000 graduate assistants for their work during the first pay period of the semester.   Nearly a quarter of these students came from one department – Political Science. *

Graduate Assistants at the University of Florida currently earn on average $18,000 per year, plus tuition wavers.  Despite failing to compensate the students who currently provide 30% of the labor for the university’s courses, the university still expects the students to make the deadline for their $1,200+ bill in student fees.  While students can defer their payment until October 11, the uncertainty of payment until October makes this an uneasy deadline.

In the meantime, the university has issued an apology and claims that the unusually high number of new graduate student hires this fall led to an abundance of paperwork for the newly integrated “shared services center” which now handles payroll for the entire university’s graduate assistants, whereas in previous years departments had individual payroll agents.   According to reporting by the Gainesville Sun, this “saved hundreds of thousands of dollars at the expense of three dozen people.”  [Note: Much of the information above also comes from this article, as well as conversations with graduate students and GAU members at UF]

The GAU has also been mounting pressure on the university to include student fees in compensation packages for graduate assistants.  The union argues that students are essentially paying to work and that there is limited transparency in how fees are utilized by the university.

This all comes at the same time that an article [gated] in the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled “Once-Flourishing Economics PhD Program Prepares to Die” reported that the University of Florida has ceased funding its economics PhD program and failed to admit any students this year.

Unfortunately, the University of Florida is just one case study in the growing “higher education crisis” in the United States.  With skyrocketing costs for students, severe budget cuts, staff shortages, and what Dan Berritt has called “administrative blight”, the US higher education system is floundering financially and academically.

The biggest threat to the system is the corporatization of education– a policy advocated for by cash strapped state leaders like Gov. Rick Perry (TX),  Gov. Rick Scott (FL), Gov. Pat McCrory (NC) and Congresswoman Virginia Foxx (R-NC 5th).  These policymakers contend that the higher education financial crisis can be fixed partially by cutting funding to “nonmarketable degrees” and by focusing on programs that provide professional training for the job market.

For example, according to the Huffington Post,

“[Gov.] McCrory said he doesn’t believe state tax dollars should be used to help students at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill study for a bachelor’s degree in gender studies or to take classes on the Swahili language.”

Instead, state funding should be earmarked for some ambiguous set of programs, where the benchmark for success is fewer students moving back home with their parents after graduation and more graduates entering the workforce as highly specialized robots who don’t know who’ve never heard of Immanuel Kant, read Adam Smith, or contemplated Judith Butler.

But at least they have a job right?  Not necessarily.  As one NC Community College instructor writes in response to McCrory:

“…the governor seems to be thinking that the jobs are there just waiting for them if they take the right classes. But where are the jobs, governor? Would the jobs magically appear if the college were to teach only job training classes? Well, shouldn’t the governor be focusing more on creating jobs than fiddling with what classes students should be taking at the college? Furthermore, what kind of education would they receive if all they could take were what he thinks would lead to jobs? Isn’t higher education about more than just jobs?”

According to Ethan Miller of American University, the corporatization of education would transform higher education into “a system modeled after corporations, fraught with grade inflation and worthless degrees focused on career paths and earning as much money as possible.”

Meanwhile, Keeling and Hersh, authors of We’re Losing our Minds: Rethinking American Higher Education, argue that college graduates today are already graduating without the “critical thinking, problem solving, analytical reasoning, and written communication skills” that are necessary “to sustain our nation’s political, social, economic, scientific, and technical leadership.”  Forgive me as I quote them at length:

“We as a society have bastardized the bachelor’s degree by turning it into a ticket to a job (though, today, that ticket often doesn’t get you very far). Meanwhile, the academy has adopted an increasingly customer-based ethic that has reaped costly effects: the expectations and standards of a rigorous liberal education have been displaced by ‘professional training’; teaching and learning have been de-valued, de-prioritized, and replaced by an emphasis on simple-minded metrics that feed magazine rankings; and increased enrollment, winning teams, bigger and better facilities, more revenue from sideline businesses, and more research grants have replaced learning as the primary touchstone for decision-making.”

At the same time, students are paying more and more each year for this faulty education – the cost of attendance has risen by 1,120% according to this infographic.

Next to the students, professors at public institutions are also victims of the crumbling system – as Dan Berrett writes:

“Faculty members [are] feeling besieged by, well, take your pick — increased scrutiny of their productivity and the relevance of their research; broadsides against tenure; attacks on their expertise and ability to collectively bargain; or their shrinking role in the affairs of their institutions…”

According to these arguments, all of this could be leading to a metaphorical “brain drain” within the United States.  Concerned with an emigration of skilled workers in the 1950s and 1960s, the British Royal Society coined the term to describe high levels of human capital flight that undermine a state’s economy.  Today, one could argue that the US is experiencing a new kind of brain drain – whereby students are graduating less educated and highly indebted from overpriced, poorly financed institutions where faculty members are increasingly under appreciated.

So why do I keep pushing forward?  Why have I invested thousands of dollars in student debt, untold sums in opportunity cost, and the six years (so far) on higher education?


As a first generation college graduate, higher education has provided me with greater opportunities than my parents.  I’ve been able to travel to six different African countries and work on research programs as diverse as military food security in the DRC, women’s legislative representation in Uganda, and most recently, social norms about corruption in Nigeria.  My liberal arts education has not been one in which teaching and learning are devalued in favor of metrics, as Keeling and Hersh describe it.  However, the foundations upon which my education was conceived and the academic world that I currently learn and one day hope to work within are being threatened by the corporatization of higher education.  If proponents of narrow “job-based” university programs succeed, indeed there will be a “bastardization of the bachelor’s degree”.  In the meantime, the crisis of higher education continues.   Finding a resolution that preserves the value of the liberal arts education, while keeping costs for students low, requires some of the best minds in academia.

*In an effort of full disclosure – I am currently a 2nd year PhD student in the Department of Political Science at the University of Florida on non-departmental fellowship funding.  I am not a graduate assistant for the University of Florida, neither am I a member of the Graduate Student Union.  The content and opinions in this blog are solely mine, except where directly quoted from elsewhere.


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