Graduate students with non-STEM degrees increasingly dependent on welfare programs

From the Chronicle of Higher Education. (H/T Nancy Pearcey)


Melissa Bruninga-Matteau, a medieval-history Ph.D. and adjunct professor who gets food stamps: “I’ve been able to make enough to live on. Until now.”

“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 Ph.D. in medieval history and an adjunct professor, came to rely on food stamps and Medicaid. Ms. Bruninga-Matteau, a 43-year-old single mother who teaches two humanities courses at Yavapai College, in Prescott, Ariz., 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.

Ms. Bruninga-Matteau grew up in an upper-middle class family in Montana that valued hard work and saw educational achievement as the pathway to a successful career and a prosperous life. She entered graduate school at the University of California at Irvine in 2002, idealistic about landing a tenure-track job in her field. 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. She started working as an adjunct in graduate school. This semester she is working 20 hours each week, prepping, teaching, advising, and grading papers for two courses at Yavapai, a community college with campuses in Chino Valley, Clarkdale, Prescott, Prescott Valley, and Sedona. 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.

Ms. Bruninga-Matteau does not blame Yavapai College for her situation but rather the “systematic defunding of higher education.” In Arizona last year, Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, signed a budget that cut the state’s allocation to Yavapai’s operating budget from $4.3-million to $900,000, which represented a 7.6 percent reduction in the college’s operating budget. The cut led to an 18,000-hour reduction in the use of part-time faculty like Ms. Bruninga-Matteau.

“The media gives us this image that people who are on public assistance are dropouts, on drugs or alcohol, and are irresponsible,” she says. “I’m not irresponsible. I’m highly educated. I have a whole lot of skills besides knowing about medieval history, and I’ve had other jobs. I’ve never made a lot of money, but I’ve been able to make enough to live on. Until now.”

She’s irresponsible, because she expects the people who choose to study rather difficult and unpleasant subjects like nursing and computer science and economics to pay for her lifestyle through taxation and “higher education funding”. I do think it’s important to point out that the main driver of higher tuition is increasing government funding of education, and that this increasing funding of higher education is nothing but corporate welfare.


The most obvious way that colleges might capture federal student aid is by raising tuition. Research to date has been inconclusive, but Stephanie Riegg Cellini of George Washington University and Claudia Goldin of Harvard have provided compelling new analysis. Cellini and Goldin looked at for-profit colleges, utilizing the key distinction that only some for-profit schools are eligible for federal aid. Riegg and Goldin find that that aid-eligible institutions “charge much higher tuition … across all states, samples, and specifications,” even when controlling for the content and quality of courses. The 75 percent difference in tuition between aid-eligible and ineligible for-profit colleges — an amount comparable to average per-student federal assistance — suggests that “institutions may indeed raise tuition to capture the maximum grant aid available.”

Here are some of the comments that I posted in a Facebook discussion about the CHE story:

I know that some may disagree with me, but this is why people need to focus on STEM fields and stay away from artsy stuff and Ph.Ds in general. We are in a recession. Trade school and STEM degrees only until things improve.

Also, no single motherhood by choice. Get married before you have children, and make sure you vet the husband carefully for his ability to protect, provide, commit and lead on moral and spiritual issues. This woman is not a victim. She chose her life, and the rest of us are paying for it. Nice tattoos by the way – that will really help when she’s looking for a job.

I am actually better at English than computer science, but I find myself with a BS and MS in computer science. We don’t get to do what we like. We do what we have to in order to be effective as Christians. According to the Bible, men have an obligation to not engage in premarital sex, and to marry before having children, and to provide for their families, or they have denied the faith. I would like to have studied English, but the Bible says no way.

I have no problem with people who can make a career out of the arts, like a Robert George or a William Lane Craig. But you can’t just go crazy. And I think men have a lot less freedom than women to choose their major, we have the obligation to be providers and we have to be selected by women based on whether we can fulfill that role (among other roles).

Women have more freedom because they are not saddled with the provider role like men are. However, I think that the times now are different than before. There is more discrimination against conservatives on campus in non-STEM fields and fewer non-STEM jobs in a competitive global economy. The safest fields are things like petroleum engineering, software engineering, etc.

If [people who major in the humanities] can make a living and support a family without relying on government-controlled redistribution of wealth, then I salute and encourage you. If you rely on the government, know that this money is being taken away from those who are doing things they don’t like at all in order to be independent and self-reliant. It is never good to be dependent on government. That money comes from people like me.

In response to an artsy challenger:

I am happy to be scorned by those who make poor choices so long as I can have my money back from them so that I can pursue my dreams. I didn’t see any of these artsy people in the lab at 4 AM completing their operating system class assignments, nor do I see them here working overtime on the weekend in the office. They can say anything and feel anything they want, and write plays and poetry all about their feelings, too. Just give me the money I earned back first. It’s not their money. They have no right to it.

One person asked why I was “always winter, never Christmas, and I replied:

It is Christmas for the Christians who I send books and DVDs to, as well as for the Christian scholars I support, and the Christian conferences, debates and lectures I underwrite across the world. Unfortunately, every dollar taken from me is a dollar less for that Ph.D tuition of a Christian debater, a dollar less for the flight of that Christian apologetics speaker, a dollar less for that textbook for that Christian biology student, and a dollar less for the flowers being sent to that post-abortive woman who I counseled who is now in law school. I have a need for the money I earn, and when it’s sent to Planned Parenthood to pay for abortions by the government, my plan to serve God suffers. And finally, should I ever get married, I would like my wife to have the option of staying home with the children and even homeschooling them. That costs money. Somehow, I feel that given the choice between my homeschooling wife and the public school unions, the government will choose to give my money to the unions. Just a hunch.

I think that people should go into the humanities when they are serious about making a career of it and can get the highest grades. But if they are coasting and only getting Bs and Cs and not paying attention in class, then drop out and go to trade school. Don’t complain later when you can’t find a job. STEM careers pay the most.

Top-earning degrees / college majors
Top-earning degrees / college majors

Here’s my previous post on the woman who accumulated $185,000 of student debt studying the humanities and is likewise demanding handouts and claiming not to be responsible.

12 thoughts on “Graduate students with non-STEM degrees increasingly dependent on welfare programs”

  1. I think Wintery is right. Unless you’re willing to excel in a humanities-related discipline, you won’t get very far.

    I have a graduate degree in English. I taught overseas for 2 years to pay off student debt and then worked at two different colleges to build my teaching repertoire. I was recently tenured, but it came with much sacrifice. I’m very blessed and thankful to God, but I often wonder if others are willing to pay their dues to make it as an instructor in this field.


  2. I enjoy your blog, WK. I agree with much of what you say, and I share most of your sentiments. But this write-up prompts me to ask: What would you suggest people with non-STEM degrees to do? I didn’t get a STEM degree, and yes, I’m suffering for it in today’s economy. Would I have made a different choice? sure. And I’d like to be able to provide for my wife so that we can have children someday. But my student loan debt shows how fiscally irresponsible that would be right now. What can I say in my defense? that I was young? that I wasn’t aware of the consequences for taking out student loans? I don’t have any excuses. I made my choice. and I can’t unmake it, regardless of how poor it may have been. I chose something that interested me, and that I could excel in. And I did excel. I got good grades. I never slacked, or anything like that. My field is a small one, and extremely competitive. I’ve managed to find more success than most, but it’s not sustainable. It’s mostly contract work, freelance, etc. No benefits, no security. I blew it. I can understand the frustration with people who make poor choices and then expect others to bail them out after the fact. I don’t like that either. I’m not on welfare. I can’t collect unemployment. And I certainly don’t expect anyone else to pay my dues. So where does that leave me? What have I left to do? Where can I go? is there an acceptable solution that doesn’t involve time-travel and entrance into a STEM field you may not have any interest in?


    1. I think you’re doing fine. My advice is for people who are coasting by on Bs and Cs and thinking that they can keep their heads above water with a degree in psychology. When you went to school, the tuition was lower and the job market was fine. It made sense to do what you did. But today, the tuition rates are exorbitant, the job market stinks, and people need to make different decisions. Don’t be upset with me. I have to be harsh in order to warn young people about what awaits them, and to not drop math and science in school.You’ve done the best you can and you should be proud of your self for not taking a dime of money from anyone else.


      1. I appreciate that. I’m not upset with you, nor did I find your rhetoric particularly harsh given the topic. I’m right there with you in how important it is that young people think about what they’re getting into when they are the college-going age. I wish someone was that harsh with me 10 years ago. Instead I got pep-talks about “following your heart” and “doing what you love,” and I ate up every word. Now I may love what I do, but only when i’m able to get paid for it. In all seriousness it may also be that I’m just impatient. Persistence pays off in my line of work in big, unforeseeable ways. I’ll keep at it.


    2. There is always the option of doing extramural study. Hunt around. But without going back to college all engineering and medicine-related degrees, and most technology degrees.are likely to be off limits to you.

      Push-to-shove, joining the National Guard and get into some maintenance engineering roles or reserve Navy Seabees to learn the basic to be a tradesperson.


      1. I’ll look into extramural studies. But unfortunately, the armed forces in any capacity is off limits because of medical reasons. Its a shame, because I think I would do really well in the military, and the desire is certainly there.


  3. Well, I don’t agree with your linked logic that the Bible said you can’t study English, but it’s nice to FINALLY get a sensible article about the STEM degrees issue. There are arrogant idiots now who put down anyone who can’t get a STEM degree. Then there are your stellar main points: do NOT waste your time on a non-STEM degree if you don’t have the brains for it, and it’s best to get a STEM degree NOW while the economy’s in the state it’s in, not because psychological, legal, and English degrees are inherently worthless, but simply because they are NOT in demand right now. Yes, we need composers, chefs, lawyers, therapists, teachers, but they’re not in demand right now; at the present we need MORE scientists, engineers, and computer technicians.


  4. Yes, but even STEM grads are not doing that well. 8% of graduating engineers are unemployed the situation for physicists an chemists is similarly bad. If you want secure employment it’s probably a good idea to hedge your bets by acquiring certification in plumbing or other skilled labour.
    I did my degree in Eng Lit in the late seventies and the situation was bad then I did an associate degree in programming and was very successful – for a while. Once outsourcing caught on it became a much tougher field.


      1. Same. I’m a biochemical engineer and the biotech bubble “burst” just after the IT bubble. I know many graduates around my age who have no luck finding a job. I have been quite blessed in the sense that mere weeks after I graduated I was already in a job because my folks had given me the impression to pad my CV with part-time jobs.

        Knowing what I know now, I would have gone food technology/engineering, chemical/process engineering or petroleum engineering. The “money” also appears to be on mechanical engineering, mechatronics/process instrumentation and automation engineering, and electrical engineering, Just about anything that have to do with maintaining primary industries or making sure people don’t go hungry really.


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