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From semester to semester, Josh Bousquette doesn't know if he'll get a bill for $12,000 or a monthly paycheck in the mail.

It all depends on whether the UW-Madison graduate student manages to find funding as a teaching assistant or research assistant. If he gets funding, his out-of-state tuition of about $25,000 a year is covered, and he's got a job that pays for most of his living expenses.

"That's 10 semesters of not knowing whether you're going to be funded. I ended up paying $24,000 for the 2006-07 school year entirely on loans. I pretty much burnt through my savings with living expenses," said Bousquette, who studies German, Dutch and Wisconsin dialects.

Increasingly, graduate students at UW-Madison are scrambling to get their hands on scarce and meager funding, especially those studying humanities. Even students lucky enough to come in with guaranteed teaching or research positions must work for some of the lowest salaries within the UW's peer institutions.

Mary Claypool, a French doctoral student, is one of the luckier ones. As a university fellow, she has guaranteed funding at a rate higher than most of her peers. The average fellowship stipend was $17,490 a year in 2006 (the most recent data available), compared with an average of $11,401 for teaching assistants.

But even Claypool has had to supplement her income by waiting tables and working at The Gap - on top of teaching four days a week, holding twice-weekly office hours, taking graduate classes, studying and organizing a research conference.

In recent years, UW leaders have repeatedly raised alarms about the loss of talented faculty and administrators to universities that pay more, but almost nothing has been said about the low pay of teaching, project and research assistants who do vital work in laboratories and teach many of the classes that undergraduates take.

At least some professors and administrators worry that the school's competitive edge will continue to slip as the best graduate candidates choose other universities that offer salaries up to twice what UW-Madison offers. Trying to lure these potential students becomes a numbers game, one that the UW often loses to better-funded departments at other schools.

"I think the issue of TA salaries is much more in a crisis situation than faculty salaries," said Richard Goodkin, chair of graduate studies in French and Italian. "If we don't have a vibrant program with a minimum number of graduate students, it has a domino effect. It affects faculty morale."

Graduate students add a "tremendous amount of intellectual energy" to the university, said Bill Tracy, professor of agronomy. They ask questions that help professors broaden and deepen research, he added - otherwise, it would be "the same old people asking the same old questions and getting the same old answers."

Gary Sandefur, dean of the College of Letters and Science, was a sociology professor for 20 years before he became dean, and he remembers a particular graduate student from Korea who encouraged him to expand his research on childhood-to-college transitions to include other cultures and countries. Sandefur took the student's advice.

"I was thinking of looking only at the United States. It really transformed the set of issues," he said.

Looking at the funding landscape as an administrator now, Sandefur said, "Our lower stipends put us at a competitive disadvantage. Even if we're No. 1, if the No. 8 department can give (a graduate student) more money, it becomes hard to pass that up."

French Professor Steven Winspur said "the graduate programs are our seed; they're what keep us alive." But come February and March, as his department finalizes its choice applicants, he must dance a "complicated ballet" with potential students to figure out who is most likely to accept an offer. Teaching and research assistantships are more flexible, but departments lose coveted university fellowships to other departments if the chosen candidates turn them down.

"It's not a matter of finding the best (candidates). It's a matter of finding the good candidates who we have a chance of attracting to the UW. We have to convince them that it's worth it to come to Madison for less money," said Winspur.

A special report on graduate student funding published in March 2007 by the College of Letters and Science found that departments as varied as English and Economics saw their acceptance rates go down. A typical candidate's response: "I am considering offers from the University of Michigan, Irvine, Notre Dame and Pittsburgh ... all four schools are offering me 12 months of guaranteed funding each year for five to six years for an amount around twice that of Madison's. I would have liked to give more consideration to joining your program, but it was not realistic, in light of these other offers."

Since the report, a few steps have been taken to make the issue a priority for the university, according to Judith Kornblatt, senior associate dean for graduate education. Her position was created last year to be "a lightning rod - a spokesperson for graduate education that hadn't been there before," as she puts it.

The biggest change "happening throughout the university up to the level of the Regents," said Kornblatt, "is a change in the way we talk about graduate education." More people are acknowledging how "absolutely essential" UW-Madison's 9,000 graduate students are to the university.

Now, she added, "the dollars need to follow that culture change. Our fellowship acceptance rate went down (this past year). We haven't turned the corner."

The main obstacle when it comes to graduate funding, Kornblatt said, is an increasingly competitive playing field for resources, where "some needs squeak louder than others."

Graduate students scored a few triumphs on the field this year. University fellowships increased $2,000 per annual salary, and the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation boosted its annual funding to the graduate school by $2 million. In addition, a new office within the graduate school will centralize information on resources for students who have to secure their own funding from semester to semester.

Such an office might have helped fifth-year graduate student Kaja Rebane find funding. But it still doesn't solve the issue of too little stipend money spread too thin, she said. Because her program, Environmental Studies, is an interdisciplinary collaboration between many departments, she's at the back of the line for teaching or research positions on campus and has to "go out into the big jungle of the UW" to find whatever funding she can.

She estimates that she spent at least 100 hours applying to 15 departments in one semester two years ago. She hadn't heard back on any of her applications a day before the semester's drop deadline. Then, at 4 p.m., she found out she'd secured funding.

"I was planning on dropping out. I don't know where I'd get $25,000," said Rebane, who already has $35,000 in debt from loans "to cover everyday stuff - food, housing, medical expenses and travel expenses for research."

The Coalition for Affordable Public Education, a student and professor collaborative formed in fall 2006, has taken up the cause and has been "indefatigable" in pushing for graduate funding awareness, said Kornblatt.

Finding dollars to follow this awareness requires navigating a complex network of legislation, university rules, and private, corporate, state and foundation money. The first step, said members of the coalition, is educating people on the importance of graduate work to the state.

"By starving the university, we're starving the state," CAPE Co-President Rebane said, citing an oft-used statistic from 1997 that the state gets a $10 return on every dollar it invests in the university.

Graduate students interviewed for this story uniformly said they get unflagging moral support from their professors and individual departments, but that the issue of lower stipends overall gets "swept under the rug" at the legislative level and by the general public as faculty salaries and undergraduate tuition grab headlines and attention.

"It's like we're overlooked, like we're not even here. People don't know what we do," said Mike Olson, a doctoral candidate in German.

Adrienne Pagac, a sociology student on a doctoral track, said, "If you're not a graduate student or know someone who is, it's easy to assume that graduate students are getting a free ride."

Pagac earns about $1,100 per month working 20 hours a week as a project assistant at the Center on Wisconsin Strategy and spends at least another 40 hours studying and in class. With no time for an outside job, she says she survives by "budgeting accordingly. Right now, it's a credit card scenario."

"No one goes to graduate school to make a fortune," said Goodkin, chair of the Department of French and Italian. However, "Our TAs are extremely underpaid, and that problem needs to be placed on the front burner. Our desire for excellence is being thwarted."

In terms of state funding to the university, the budget has not kept up with demands. Students now pay about 56 percent of their educational costs, up from 36 percent 10 years ago, according to UW System spokesman David Giroux.

"People think of the UW as a public university, but less than a fifth of UW-Madison's funding comes from the state," said Todd Berry of the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, a nonpartisan group that studies state funding issues. "The big crunch came in 2003-04, when (Gov. Jim) Doyle was cutting the budget. The UW took the biggest hit of anyone."

The decline in the percentage of state funding has made the UW more reliant on corporate and private donations. The result? Medical and science departments have an easier time finding money to supplement graduate stipends, while humanities struggle to find outside, "entrepreneurial" funding.

"Science professors laugh when they hear the figures we pay our TAs," said French Professor Aliko Songolo.

Many agree that the language departments have it the worst. Said Linda Brindeau, a French teaching assistant: "Many of the people we teach are going to go into business or medical school. Money gets poured into the business school, but we don't see any return on this."

Besides lower salaries, UW graduate students face other obstacles. Out-of-state tuition costs more than twice the in-state tuition of $9,642 a year, and out-of-state status sticks long after a student has lived and paid taxes in Wisconsin.

Even though he has been living in Wisconsin for two years and votes here in elections, Bousquette is still responsible for an out-of-state tuition rate unless he finds a teaching assistantship or outside funding.

"I could hold public office in Wisconsin before I could get in-state resident status," he said. And good graduate students, he points out, don't just come from Wisconsin. The vast majority come from around the country and the world.

Another complication is that international students can't work outside of the university like their domestic colleagues, a rule that many break by baby sitting, tutoring and taking up other odd jobs to make ends meet. Both international and U.S. students say that time spent working in outside jobs takes precious time away from studying or working on their dissertations and can prolong finishing a doctorate or even discourage some so much that they drop out.

"We've recently seen students stopping at the masters," instead of finishing a doctorate, said Brindeau. "They just can't imagine going on at that rate for another four or five years."