‘Every day was about survival’ : Inside the graduate student affordability crisis

Feb. 28, 2019, 1:03 a.m.

In Judaism, Marva Shalev Marom said, 18 is a good number.

“It’s chai,” she explained. “It’s for life.”

But when Shalev Marom wakes up with only $18 in her bank account, she finds it hard to be excited about her financial situation. Shalev Marom, who relies on picking produce from campus trees to sustain herself, eats just one full meal a day.

She grew up in Israel, where she worked as a translator, an editor and a teacher. She also spent a decade leading music education programs designed to knit together Ethiopian Israeli and Palestinian Muslim youths. She speaks passionately about helping others, operating “in the nexus between between academia and community.”

Now a third-year graduate student in the School of Education, Shalev Marom is concentrating in Education and Jewish Studies (EdJS) and Race, Inequality and Language in Education (RILE).

At Stanford, Shalev Marom lives in the cheapest housing option open to her — and as an international student on a J-1 visa, she is subject to strict federal laws that regulate any additional income she could receive from further employment. In each pay period — roughly two-weeks long — she says she currently receives around $200 to $300 from her research assistantship, after the deduction of housing costs and University fees.

“It’s just being put in this catch-22 that I was flown to the other side of the world and I was said to have everything I need to function here,” she said. “When it turns out it’s not enough, it also turns out that there’s no other work options for me in the U.S.”

Shalev Marom recalls coming to Stanford excited about its academic offerings, hoping to pursue her interests and develop her abilities to help others.

“When I thought about coming to Stanford for a Ph.D., it was really an idea about combining everything together — something that wasn’t possible to do in Israel,” she continued.

Before her balance dropped to $9.75 this winter and she purchased a fruit picker to more effectively reap produce from campus trees, she was optimistic about her financial future.

“I remember that I came to the admits’ day and they showed us this very fancy financial package,” she added. “To tell you the truth, it was so much more than I ever made in Tel Aviv. It didn’t even occur to me that it will not be enough.”

‘Scavenging for food’  

The majority of graduate students in the U.S. live on less than $20,000 a year. In Palo Alto, one of the most expensive places to live in America, things don’t get any easier.

Assistant dean and director of financial aid Karen Cooper, who chairs a subcommittee of the Affordability Task Force that focuses on graduate students, says the task force and the financial aid office are aware of the severe financial strain some graduate students face. She added that the task force is gathering data on issues of affordability and will make recommendations to the Board of Trustees in December, but did not describe what these recommendations would be.

Cooper said she could not speak to the situations of individual students but spoke of the complexity of how pay is disbursed, which can come from multiple funding sources and is governed by rules that vary by school. She said that “the standard salary amount is meant to cover typical living expenses for a single graduate student.”

The financial situations of international graduate students, who comprise 34 percent of Stanford’s graduate student body, can be particularly severe due to restrictions on their visas that limit their ability to pick up extra income through additional employment.

Irán Román is a fifth-year Ph.D. student in music and neuroscience from Guanajuato, Mexico. He entered the country on an F-1 visa that restricts where and how often he is able to work. He also supports his wife, who entered the country on an F-2 visa that forbids her from working at all. Román arrived with zero savings and receives no financial support from his family, he said.

In his first year at Stanford, he said his income was around $200 a month after paying for rent — which led to some tough decisions.

“I could pay for my wife’s insurance, but then I don’t have money for food,” Román said.

Things improved somewhat in his second year when he began a new teaching assistantship, leaving his after-rent income approximately $400. But that March, Román’s wife discovered she was pregnant.

They moved into family housing, which Román said was about $600 more expensive than their previous studio apartment. The steeper housing costs shrank the money that Román brought home. In some of the paychecks that were reviewed by The Daily, taxes and University deductions including housing costs slashed his take-home income to single digits. During some weeks, Román brought home only $7 or $10. During one two-week pay period in fall 2017, he received $0.

Referring to students facing similar financial situations, Cooper said that the Affordability Task Force is “interested in looking [into the issue]” to help students “avoid that situation,” but did not offer more details or remedies being sought by the University at present.

Cooper also said that while graduate students should not have to go into debt, they shouldn’t expect to earn “extra money” either.

“I can certainly understand for some — especially students who are in PhD programs that last five years or so — that’s a long time to not be earning at a higher level,” she said.

For Román, however, his concerns were not about earning about a higher level, but rather about earning at all.

“Every day was about survival,” Román said. “Survival first — as far as getting food.”

And so, like Shalev Marom, he looked to the environment, scavenging for food around campus.

“I can tell you where there are orange trees, avocado trees, fig trees, kumquats, loquats,” he said. “Avocados were the big one; those were great to find.”

He skipped meals, too, and he relied on seminars with complimentary food. Four days a week, he said, he would bring containers to open talks, fill them with free food, and bring them home to his wife.

“Without these seminars, I would not be making it — making ends meet,” Román said. “I was starving, so to say.”

This continued through his son’s birth.

“One of our family activities was to go around Stanford scavenging for food,” he said.  

His financial situation even created “stress-related health issues,” he said, prompting visits to Vaden Health Center. As spending for social outings was similarly unfeasible, he at times felt a sense of detachment from his peers.

“Luckily,” Román said, “I had my wife, and she’s great.”

He said he quickly realized their situation wasn’t tenable.

“How am I going to survive?” he asked. “I know that Stanford is not going to help me.”

Instead, he turned to private enterprise. While Román studies neuroscience and music, his research is computationally focused, making him an attractive candidate for internships at tech companies. For the past two summers, Román has suspended his research to pursue private employment. Most recently, he worked at Apple.

“I would look at the companies’ paychecks and laugh,” he said. “I was going from $10 to $5,000 a week.”

“I do not need $5,000 a week from Stanford,” he added later. “I need enough money to pay for everyone’s insurance and to buy food. That’s all I need.”

Sometimes working weekends and overtime to earn as much as possible, Román now relies on savings from his summer employment to support himself and his family throughout the rest of the year.

“You may ask, ‘What will you do in 2019?’” he said. “I’m going to do another internship, because otherwise it’s not going to be possible to survive.”

Román now describes himself as “lucky” for having the technical skill set that makes him an asset to high-paying companies. Graduate students in the humanities — and couples with a single income — may not be as fortunate, he says.

“I don’t know how they would do it,” he said.

According to Cooper, the Affordability Task Force and the financial aid office are gathering data on financial strain and food insecurity.

Cooper cited a survey on student expenses that the financial aid office performs every five years, an affordability-focused town hall. She also mentioned the Affordability Assessment, an online survey that closed Feb. 8 and was sharply criticized by the Graduate Student Council.

She also acknowledged that the survey “wasn’t a perfect instrument” and said that the task force would hold focus group sessions before making its final recommendations to the Board of Trustees in December.

‘The Family Grant is a significant improvement’

This year, Román began receiving $7,000 from Stanford’s Graduate Family Grant Program, a pilot initiative that began this academic year and disburses up to $10,000 per year to graduate students with dependent children.

“I would not have had the same problems if the program started earlier,” he said, though he noted that the program would not have helped him before the birth of his child.

In an email exchange with Vice Provost for Graduate Education Patti J. Gumport, a group of graduate students described the financial award as “very helpful,” but noted several caveats.

Since 1988, students with two or more children have been able to access the Escondido Village Family Fund for financial support. (While Román is a resident of Escondido Village Building 70, which has struggled recently with a months-long rat infestation, he has only one child.) With the new Graduate Family Grant Program, the amount that students can receive from these two programs combined is capped at a maximum of $10,000 per year.

“We were disappointed to hear about this, as student parents need both shelter and care for their children, not one or the other,” the email reads. “When Stanford announced the grant last spring, it appeared that Stanford was poised to take a national leadership role on family issues; it’s disheartening to see the grant we were so excited about become much more limited in its reach.”

“Capping total support from the two programs at $10,000 allows us to distribute the funds more broadly,” Gumport wrote in her response to the students, for which she said Cooper had provided “background” information. “With the Provost’s commitment of general funds, we are able to distribute about four times what the EV Family Fund previously allowed.”

“The Family Grant is a significant improvement,” Cooper said. She added that the grant had been  extended to the next year.

‘I tried to seek out help in many ways’

Román and Shalev Marom are quick to acknowledge the academic benefits of completing a graduate degree at Stanford; both have also expressed gratitude for the Cardinal Care coverage.

“I broke my leg straight through last spring, and I didn’t have to pay anything,” Shalev Marom said.

But they say there are serious affordability concerns, especially for international graduate students. Both also described feeling taken in by supportive rhetoric at the start of their studies. When Román was offered admission, he said he was told his Ph.D. would be “completely funded.”

“I understand institutionally that you have to put the line at some place,” Shalev Marom said. And yet, she said, the University’s efforts to include international students are inadequate. “You can’t bring these people in, and tell them that they are welcome, and then not fully follow them through to the time that they’re there.”

University spokesperson E.J. Miranda said that financial support for students at the Graduate School of Education, where Shalev Marom is a student, has expanded in recent years.

“Dean Dan Schwartz has made student funding a priority and instituted new programs to support both master’s and Ph.D. students,” Miranda added. “New financial support in the past 10 years include: summer funding for doctoral students, five years guaranteed funding for Ph.D. students (up from four) that is aligned with University rates that have increased year over year, as well as need-based grants and Dean’s Fellowships for master’s students.”

Miranda also said that R&DE’s rates “are developed based on the actual cost of providing housing.”

“Stanford charges students the minimum necessary to cover costs,” he said. “Stanford’s graduate student housing rents are, on average, 40 percent below the cost of market rate housing in the community.”

While Stanford has developed recent initiatives like Emergency Grant-In-Aid funds designed to support graduate students financially, students interviewed by The Daily say that by-and-large the University lacks sufficient support mechanisms.

Part of the problem may be a lack of communication from the University and a corresponding lack of awareness among students.

“I learned that Stanford has an emergency fund that students may access, but I didn’t learn that until two months ago,” Román said. “I don’t think Stanford does a good job telling people about what’s available.”

But with its $5,000 cap per academic year, he said, the emergency fund wouldn’t have fully addressed his financial problems anyway.

“I think that the emergency grant, for instance, which is a good idea, is very specific for ‘emergency,’” Shalev Marom said. “I need it basically to have some sort of food on the table — it really is that. And that is not an emergency. I mean it shouldn’t be an emergency.”

Cooper acknowledged that the fund would not cover long-standing financial problems.

“It’s not for paying tuition, handling the standard living costs that students are aware of before they come to campus,” she said. “It’s really to handle those unanticipated emergencies that come up.”

Shalev Marom says she has repeatedly advocated for herself before the University.

“I came to the student financial services and I started talking with many people,” she said. “People were often so nice to me — as they were telling me that there is nothing they could do.”

Her lack of U.S. citizenship, she said, rules out many scholarships that exist to support domestic graduate students.

Cooper said that where Stanford had control over the distribution of funds, they were not restricted to citizens. But external funding sources — like graduate research fellowships from the National Science Foundation, of which Cooper says there are around 500 recipients at Stanford — may only be open to U.S. citizens and permanent residents.

Shalev Marom said winter closure, when campus dining halls shut down, has been a particularly dire time.

“There was no way of eating cheaply, without a car, without the dining hall, and without anything, there was no way of sustaining myself,” she said.

Miranda, responding on behalf of Residential & Dining Enterprises, encouraged graduate students to prepare meals in their kitchens and said that “for many years” dining halls had been closed during winter closure for “under the University’s energy curtailment winter closure policy.”

“Graduate student housing remains open year-round, including during winter break,” he wrote. “Graduate students (unlike undergraduates) have the opportunity to prepare meals in their apartment kitchens. Each graduate student apartment was designed to support individual or family meal preparation and each graduate residence has common space, including kitchenette(s) for communal dining and events.”

Shalev Marom and Roman say their situation is not unique. Román suggested a feeling of diminished status among international graduate students may be keeping others from coming forward.

“When you’re an international student, you kind of feel that you should not be bothering anyone,” Román said. “That’s how I feel, like I don’t belong here.”

Living off cabbage and tortillas

When he turned 26 and had to leave his parents’ healthcare plan, Tim MacKenzie Ph.D. ’18 learned what other graduate students in the chemistry department had already known: that while for graduate students in some departments, Cardinal Care is entirely subsidized, others must pay around $2,500 a year toward their coverage.

Through a central program, the financial aid office provides graduate students with a subsidy of either 25 or 50 percent — depending on their position — toward the full cost of coverage, which in the 2018-2019 academic year is $5,208. Most students, Cooper said, receive a 50 percent subsidy.

Some departments pick up the remaining 50 percent for their graduate students; others do not. Cooper said, though, that departments that do not provide an additional subsidy “may provide additional funding — their salary level might be higher, for example.”

She added the Affordability Task Force was investigating health care costs and considering making recommendations to the Board of Trustees in its December meeting “about whether that subsidy situation should change or be adjusted.”

MacKenzie started a petition calling on the University to fully subsidize Cardinal Care for all graduate students. Two years of advocating for his request in meetings with administrators bore no success, he said.

“At the end of two years of being passed around different meetings, we were told nothing’s going to happen,” MacKenzie said. “So it didn’t really do anything.”

MacKenzie is quick to acknowledge that financially, as a U.S. citizen with no dependents, he’s probably “in a better situation than a lot of people.” Still he said, the Cardinal Care cost presented a significant challenge to his budget. Where he once directed portions of his income to paying off undergraduate student loans — which he describes as having “five figures” — incurred at another institution, these portions now went to Cardinal Care.

“$2,500 maybe doesn’t sound like a lot,” he said. “But when you’re making as much as a graduate student at Stanford makes, living in this area, it is noticeable.”

MacKenzie asked other chemistry students to support his cause. A scanned copy of the petition provided to The Daily shows more than 130 signatures. MacKenzie says they comprised more than half of the department’s graduate students in 2017 when he circulated the document.

“More people were supportive but were afraid of possible retribution if they put their names down,” MacKenzie said.

“While we receive a 50 percent subsidy on Cardinal Care, the cost to us currently represents about 20 percent of our discretionary income (after taxes, housing, and basic groceries), which places a significant burden on us,” the petition reads. “Further, approximately $25,000 in annual tuition per graduate student is paid to the University using grant money, which is obtained in part through our labor.”

In April 2018, MacKenzie and another chemistry Ph.D. student presented on graduate student finances to their department’s faculty, trying to win support for the petition’s request. In it, they compare the costs of housing, health insurance, food and other expenses against graduate student income.

“We were actually very conservative in our estimates of how bad the affordability issue was and even so it was kind of shocking to see it in the numbers,” MacKenzie said. A line graph on one slide shows a “Reasonable” estimate of funds available to a graduate student dip below zero at the purchase of a laptop.

The presentation also includes testimonials from students about their financial challenges.

Several mentioned difficulty with food finances. One student wrote that he “had to live off cabbage and tortillas at some points during my Ph.D. to make ends meet.”

“My dietary needs have definitely taken a backseat while in graduate school,” another wrote. “Since having to pick up the bill for Cardinal Care, my ability to break even each month is strictly determined by how much I am able to buy budget food, and cook for myself.”

Students also took broader issue with the financial aid provided to students.

“The current healthcare policy in the chemistry department disproportionately affects international students and students whose families do not have health care coverage in the first place,” one student wrote.

Another said that graduate students “often neglect our bodily health, such as by working consecutive 15-hour days.”

“We were surprised at the time at the number of people who mentioned difficulty with food finances,” MacKenzie wrote in an email to The Daily.

MacKenzie completed his thesis defense in fall 2018. He is currently looking for post-doctoral positions around Stanford, but he has a back-up plan, too: returning to the East Coast to live with his parents.

“But it seems absurd that someone who’s almost 30 with a Ph.D. from Stanford has to worry about going to live with their parents, because they didn’t get paid enough doing research and teaching for the University to be able to afford to live,” he said.

Off of Cardinal Care and with limited financial resources, he forewent health care when he finished his Ph.D. He plans to wait until he gains coverage from a new job or becomes eligible for low-income coverage from California. In this interim without coverage, he was struck by a vehicle while biking on campus.

“I’m pretty sure I got a bruised rib — I was a little scraped up,” he said. “It was really troubling getting hit by a car and being like, ‘Well, I can’t really do anything about this.’”

‘I do not know how other students do it’

Not every international graduate student is grappling or has grappled with food insecurity. But many speak of the difficulty of their financial circumstances.

Solène Delecourt is a French citizen and a fifth-year student in organizational behavior at the Graduate School of Business. She describes the difficulty of parenting her toddler son at Stanford.

“Housing is 65 percent of my stipend; childcare is 60 percent,” she said. “If you know anything about math, you know that’s not going to work.”

“Thankfully,” she says, her husband, an Iranian-American green-card resident, is a postdoc with a stipend of his own. Delecourt has never experienced food insecurity, but it’s not far from her mind.

“Definitely on my own, I cannot make ends meet,” she said. “I do not know how other students do it.”

For Shalev Malom, attempting to make ends meet involves making use of every resource she can.

“Every week, I’m still picking fruit from campus,” she said. “And people are most welcome to join me.”


Contact Charlie Curnin at ccurnin ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Charlie Curnin '22 is the editor-in-chief of The Stanford Daily. Contact him at eic 'at' stanforddaily.com.

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