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A person with a graduate degree is one of the last you’d expect to be on food stamps, but an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education the numbers have soared in the last few years. The amount of Masters and PhD degree holders has more than tripled, while professional-school degree holders have increased by a third. If higher education is supposed to be the pathway, then why are we seeing this trend?

From the Ivy Tower to the Food Stamps Line

A generation ago, getting a graduate degree meant you’d be more educated than the vast majority of the population, setting you apart from others in a valuable way. You’d have a skill and knowledge set that few other people have, and employers were willing to pay for that. And in higher education, this also meant becoming tenured, or essentially getting a lifelong, unbreakable contract with a college.

That’s not the case anymore, not by a long shot. In the Chronicle article, Melissa Bruninga-Matteau features prominently as one such case: she has a PhD in medieval history and teaches two courses at a community college in Arizona. She was doing okay financially — not great, but sustainable enough — until Governor Jan Brewer cut her college’s operating budget from $4.3 million to $900,000. Suddenly, adjunct professors like Bruninga-Matteau weren’t as necessary, and they saw their collective hours reduced by 18,000.

Educated and Unable to Support Themselves

A popular image of professors is a tidy six-figure income, teaching a few classes a week, having long summers off, and being able to enjoy a sabbatical every few years or so. This cushy image has understandably drawn many people to the profession, but it’s evolved into a job of status and prestige being its calling cards, and not actual reliability.

The article reports that 360,000 of the 22 million Master’s degree holders were receiving some form of aid, but this percentage isn’t as startling as the rise itself. According to the 2011 Current Population Survey by the US Census Bureau, which measured data from 2007 to 2010, the number of Master’s-educated people on food stamps rose from 101,682 to 293,029. Those with a PhD increased their reliance at a much faster rate, with the 9,776 soaring to 33,655 over the same three-year period.

Facing the Hard Truth

Along with Bruninga-Matteau, the article also explores the story of Elliott Stegall, who found himself having to get food stamps after his two-courses-a-week job wasn’t enough to make ends meet. However, the mistakes that Stegall made are much clearer than Bruninga-Matteau’s: he got his graduate degree in the midst of the economic recession, going after a white-collar job when they were disappearing before his eyes.

Perhaps most telling is the self-analysis that Stegall performed on himself, admitting that he may not have made the best decision. In the article, he’s quoted as saying, “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. Perhaps I should have been learning a skill that the economy supports.

It’s almost always a smarter idea to go after college education than to not, but the kind of college education makes a difference. A PhD in medieval history, such as is the case with Bruninga-Matteau, may not be the most profitable course of action. But a graduate degree in healthcare or STEM subjects is a better bet.&l


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