My graduate school experience was unusual, at least for someone pursuing a humanities PhD. While I did teach some, for much of the time I was in grad school I was also working in the technology and entertainment industries. In part this is because I was an immovable ass who wasn’t willing to give up my interests in computing in order to pursue a doctorate in the liberal arts. That turned out to be a very smart—if very lucky—brand of truculence. In part it was because I wasn’t willing to give up the income that career was providing. My wife and I were young and expecting a child in those early days of grad school, and the opportunity to avoid destitution seemed appealing.

At the time, in-state graduate students at UCLA paid fees, including an “educational fee” which has been superseded today by an in-state tuition cost. Students working as a TA would receive a tuition waiver and a stipend, but during the years I was working in industry I had to pay the full regimen of fees. The UCLA registrar publishes an archive of those fees. In 2000-2001 when I was paying them out of pocket, it amounted to $4,500 per year. This year, graduate student fees at UCLA total $14,800 or so, a difference of over $10,000/year.

I was a challenging case already as a graduate student, and I only managed to finish because Emily Apter, Ken Reinhard, and Kate Hayles encouraged me to find a way to combine my interests in computing and criticism. I owe them a lot, because I was able to start doing the work I do now at just the right time to benefit from its explosion.

Intellectual encouragement notwithstanding, there was certainly a financial motivation to continue as a doctoral student. $4,500 per year isn’t nothing, but it was certainly affordable on the tech salary I was making at the time. It’s very hard to speculate, but I’m not sure if I would have been willing to spend another $10,000/year for the privilege. For one part, I was not very high on the idea of an academic career at the time, even though I’m very glad I pursued one in retrospect. For another, I’m not sure if we could have afforded it. Not really because our family income couldn’t bear it (I was making a lot more money in industry than I did for a long time as a university professor), but because of other life choices. We had another child, and we’d made lifestyle decisions that naturalized certain costs. Part of it just involved the high cost of living in Los Angeles, part of it had to do with the costs of having a young family, and part of it had to do with luxury and discretionary expenditures that were probably unnecessary, but whose expenditure helped me learn some useful lessons about unnecessary expenditure. In any case, I’m just not sure if I’d have been able to overcome the idea of shelling out another $10k/year over several years in the speculative pursuit of a PhD that may not have been worth more than the privilege of being called “Dr.,” even if hindsight proved it was very much worthwhile.

Naturally, my life would be quite different if I hadn’t made those choices. Professionally speaking, I’m not sure what I’d be doing. Working somewhere in the technology sector, probably, although it’s hard to know what choices I would have made and what succeses or failures I would have encountered. Personally speaking, I would have spent a lot less time with my family than I’ve been able to do as a university professor, designer, and consultant. Back when I would have had to make the choice to spend $14k per year instead of $4k per year on education, I was often working 12-14 hour days at the office.

I’m not sure what advocates of today’s fiscal and educational trends would say about this. MOOCs and other online learning initiatives are mainly focused on reducing the costs of undergraduate education (whether they will or not is another question), but the cost of graduate education has increased substantially as well. Those initiatives are also focused on efficiencies and therefore are likely to have the effect of reducing rather than increasing the diversity of pursuits that universities can support. But some problems are not solved by efficiency measures; indeed, some are created by them.

Back when I was paying $4.5k a year into UC, I was also paying California state taxes of various types. Today, the state of California contributes less than half as much per UC student than it did when I was enrolled. In the intervening time, the UC system has also opened a tenth campus and enrolled 26% more undergraduate and 28% more graduate students. The fundamental problem isn’t that higher education is unsustainable, except insofar as it has not been sustained. Some celebrate the idea that “useless” fields are finally being defunded or shuttered in universities thanks to the present “fiscal emergency,” which is really just the inevitable result of recent policy. But aren’t these the same people who celebrate risk and innovation and experimentation, often blindly in fact? Ah, only when that risk has private industry as its beneficiary. And for students, the present situation becomes a vicious cycle and a foregone conclusion. Who would even think to consider graduate study in certain fields or around certain problems when the risk of doing so is made so individual, rather than shared collectively?

I’m not sure if my contributions to academia, industry, and society will be viewed by history as significant or not, but certainly I’ve been able to do some work that seems to have been at least somewhat important in certain circles. I think there’s still more I have yet to do. I’ll never know for sure, but even as a relatively well-off graduate student, I doubt I would have been able to do the particular things I did had I not been able to take advantage of the state’s financial support of the UC system. Call it “risk capital,” if you want. Or just call it by its name: public education.

Surely there are lots of folks like this, who won’t be able to pursue particular forms of education or who will choose not to do given the apparent appeal of their alternatives. Of course, we won’t know what they might have done because we won’t travel along a timeline on which those deeds will have taken place.

published January 26, 2013


  1. Joe McCarthy

    I can relate to the challenges of being in graduate school while starting and growing a family: both of my children were born when I was working on a PhD in computer science at another state school, the University of Massachusetts.

    I was fortunate to work as a graduate research assistant, for which which I received a full tuition waiver (I don’t even know how much tuition was then) and a stipend of somewhere around $12K/year, which seemed small (given I had a MS in computer science at the time) … until I went to some campus meetings about the organization of a graduate student union, and discovered just how good I had it compared with my colleagues in less well funded disciplines and departments.

    While MOOCs are currently focusing on undergraduate-level education, as they continue to gain traction, and their credentials gain credence among stakeholders who want to hire educated individuals, I suspect the erosion of the credentialing monopoly that has traditionally been enjoyed by institutions of higher education will open up new possibilities for motivated individuals who seek higher education outside the structures – and fees – of such institutions.

    The recently announced joint venture between SJSU and Udacity suggests to me that the “demand” for [tenured] professors will continue to decline (demand for non-tenure track faculty is already far outstripping demand for tenure-track faculty), and the demand for the credentials traditionally required for such positions is also likely to ebb … so the “market” may approach a new equilibrium that is very different from the traditional models that served us well during the days when support for institutions of higher education was [better] sustained.

  2. Ian Bogost

    Joe, regarding the matter of education outside the structures of institutions. There are a lot of assumptions about that which we don’t yet understand. Many of those assumptions seem to take for granted that nothing is lost, or that nothing changes. That we just do the education part on our own time, whatever that means. But institutions are not just bureaucracies, they are also communities and contexts. So it’s not just that these technologies and systems will allow the same things but better. Rather, they will change the things themselves.

  3. Amit Ray

    Thank you Emily Apter, Ken Reinhard, and Kate Hayles.