How much does a graduate student cost? Short answer: close to $60k per year. Long answer:
Several times in the past few weeks, the topic of graduate student cost has come up. The “real” cost of a graduate student in the sciences, i.e. the money that a grant has to provide to support a graduate student doing Ph.D. research, is considerably higher than the money that the student sees — the latter is about $24k / year, and the former is now close to $60k / year. I can’t remember ever seeing an illustration of what the pieces of the 60k are, and how they’ve changed in recent years, so I thought I’d put together a graph from my own lab’s budget data.
At Oregon and elsewhere, there are four categories that make up the overall cost:
- Salary — the actual pay of the graduate student researcher
- Fringe benefits — health insurance, fees, etc. Insurance is the biggest piece of this.
- Indirect costs — For every dollar of grant money received by the researcher, the university (like all universities) receives money from the granting agency, at some negotiated rate that is supposed to account for building costs, maintenance, etc. At Oregon, this indirect cost rate is presently 0.45, meaning that of every $1.45 budgeted in an NSF grant, $1.00 goes to the research, and $0.45 goes to the university as indirect costs. (This rate is not unusual.)
- Tuition — The University charges tuition for graduate students. (Indirect costs are not charged on tuition.)
- I didn’t extensively mine the numbers, and only picked four years since the 2006-2007 academic year (when I started at the University of Oregon) for which it was easy to extract the above components.
- The stated numbers would be similar at other U.S. Universities. At some places, tuition is higher; at some places, tuition for advanced graduate students is zero.
Here are the graphs:
The graph on the right is in inflation-adjusted 2010 dollars. There isn’t much of an increase over the past six years, though there is a recent rise of a few thousand dollars, driven largely by ever-increasing tuition costs.
I’ll leave further interpretation of the graphs to the reader. It is interesting to note that the UO administration has a goal of increasing the number of graduate students here. That’s an expensive task, and less than half the expense is the actual salary of the students! One could support twice as many students per grant if tuition and indirect costs were eliminated, but that would bring problems of its own…
It would be great to have data extending further into the past, but this seems hard to gather.
Update (Nov. 5, 2014):
As pointed out in the comments, UO has instituted a new policy for graduate student tuition, in which grants will only be charged 1/3 of the tuition for “advanced Ph.D. students.*” This policy — which exists at many other universities — dramatically brings down the cost per student. Very quickly making an updated graph, it looks like:
So: the inexorable rise in tuition is exorable after all!
(* Meaning those who have passed whatever candidacy criterion their department has. In practice, this generally means 3rd year students and higher.)
8 thoughts on “The $60,000 graduate student”
I’m happy for the stipend levels to increase, but tuition–not so much. I do think the disparity between what the graduate student gets and what the PI pays can lead to conflicts. The student thinks, “If I’m being paid this low wage I can be unproductive if I feel like it, since it pretty much just hurts me.” The PI thinks, “That student is eating up most of my grant and so I need to ride them hard to make sure the lab gets enough results for the resubmission.”
I think many (most?) students don’t know about the costs associated with them. If only they would read my blog…
Here in Canada, our overhead costs are completely buried (direct transfer of X dollars from the federal government to the university) so we do not see these “indirect costs” at all. Also, at SFU, we pay only the student stipend + benefits; they pay the (significantly lower than your) tuition. So, the cost to our research grant per grad student is under $30K. Then if the grad student TAs (standard practice, unless one has a prestigious grant), the cost to research faculty goes down further. Given our significantly smaller research grants, I imagine it all balances out in the end…
There’s an arbitrage opportunity buried in here somewhere — Let’s say that I manage to get a grant that pays $90k/yr for graduate students (1.5 US students). Instead of hiring students, I send you the money, and you sneak two Canadian students across the border, instructing them to say “zee” instead of “zed” and pretend they hate hockey. So: I get 2 students for $90k (instead of 1.5 students), and you get a net profit of $30k ($90k minus the 2*$30k cost of your students). Everyone wins!
It would be interesting to see how the recent change of policy on how much we charge grants for student tuition changes your graphs, on the average, extending into 2015. With the new policy your grant is only charged for 3 credits of tuition for students who have advanced to candidacy (rather than the full 9 credits). You still pay the benefits and stipend. We certainly hope this has a measurable benefit to sponsored research.
Nice blog by the way!
Thanks! I’ve made an updated graph above — the drop in costs is certainly very apparent!
You get charged indirect costs & fees on tuition paid to graduate students?!? Is it a taxable benefit for them?
Hi Nancy — No, indirect costs aren’t charged on tuition, just salary and benefits. I long for the good old days when I didn’t know any of this stuff…