From Advanced Degree to Welfare

Due to cuts in higher education, and a lack of jobs in academia, people with advanced degrees increasingly depend on federal food stamps.

| July/August 2012

“I am not a welfare queen,” says Melissa Bruninga-Matteau.

That’s how she feels compelled to start a conversation about how she, a white woman with a PhD in medieval history and an adjunct professor, came to rely on federal food stamps and Medicaid. Ms. Bruninga-Matteau, a 43-year-old single mother who teaches two humanities courses at Yavapai College, in Prescott, Arizona, says the stereotype of the people receiving such aid does not reflect reality. Recipients include growing numbers of people like her, the highly educated, whose advanced degrees have not insulated them from financial hardship.

“I find it horrifying that someone who stands in front of college classes and teaches is on welfare,” she says.

A Shrinking Tenure Track

Ms. Bruninga-Matteau grew up in an upper-middle class family that saw educational achievement as the pathway to a successful career and a prosperous life. She entered graduate school in 2002, idealistic about landing a tenure-track job. She never imagined that she’d end up trying to eke out a living, teaching college for poverty wages, with no benefits or job security.

Ms. Bruninga-Matteau always wanted to teach. This semester she is working 20 hours each week, prepping, teaching, advising, and grading papers for two courses at Yavapai. Her take-home pay is $900 a month, of which $750 goes to rent. Each week, she spends $40 on gas to get her to the campus; she lives 43 miles away, where housing is cheaper.

Last year, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed a budget that cut the state’s allocation to Yavapai’s operating budget from $4.3 million to $900,000. The cut led to an 18,000-hour reduction in the use of part-time faculty like Ms. Bruninga-Matteau.

Luccia Rogers
8/6/2012 8:41:48 PM

The past decade has seen the percentage of adjunct faculty in the United States shoot from about 20 percent to about 74 percent. When the people who have been earning advanced degrees in the past decade started down that route, there were sufficient jobs at living wages. However, administrators motivated only by increasing their salaries, usually by slashing expenses such as full-time faculty salaries and benefits and cutting the fees paid to adjuncts to next-to-nothing. But, I guess blaming this one group targeted by the political assault on education for decisions made by others is easier than seeking the facts and actual information.

8/6/2012 7:32:23 PM

So let me get this straight. You got a degree in a discipline which has a limited number of positions available. The positions available pay less than needed to take care of your expenses. You need public assistance to take care of your family, and that is due to the fact that the evil university doesn't pay a "living wage". Say what? The cost of college has never been higher, and the graduation rates have never been lower and more graduates than ever before cannot find a job of any kind, much less one in their discipline. How many English professors does the USA need? How many college students does the USA need? How many people are herded into college with no chance of graduating, no real preparation, no idea what they will study, no chance of finding a job even if they obtain a degree, and, should they find a job, that job will not pay the bills? The explosion of courses, students, and debt are directly linked to the idea that everyone must have a degree, the "boat load of free government money", and, with the "free money", the ability to choose a course of study with no future. Does the administration (government or college) care if the student can't find work or fails to graduate? Not really. The government got to pass out the pork, and forgive the loans (that will buy a few votes). The college administration got the revenue, the tenured people got payed, and the bureaucracy grew (now lets bemoan how unfaaair it all is... even though I got paid). The student spent the money, lived the "college life experience" and now can blame any failure on someone else. Lets start fixing it by admitting we are ALL at fault. The citizen, the faculty, the administration, the government and the STUDENT all share some blame. So far, the only personal responsibility I see is when the actual tax payer (those who OWE the IRS at the end of each year) signs his or her tax return to foot the bill (college debt is now Trillion dollars). Don't we need plumbers anymore?