The Costs of Graduate School and Healthcare

On January 20, Mat Johnson posted on Twitter about his insulin falling out of the refrigerator and his kid picking it up and placing it in the freezer, thus ruining it. Insurance would not replace the insulin, which costs $800, and Johnson pointed out that luckily he has enough to cover it. However, if he could not cover it, he may actually die, as one of his former students did, from not having access to the insulin he needs. Johnson followed this tweet up with another one about his student, Shane Patrick Doyle and the fact that Snopes even posted about Doyle’s story because so many people didn’t believe it.

Doyle started a GoFundMe page in February 2017 to help him raise money for a month’s supply of insulin. A few weeks after posting on the campaign, Doyle passed away, on March 18, from diabetic ketoacidosis. For two weeks, Doyle was $50 short of reaching his goal on GoFundMe to purchase a month’s supply of insulin. When one vial of insulin costs about $275 and most people need multiple vials per month, a person without insurance could pay anywhere from $275 to over $800 a month for insulin.

Ted Closson, a classmate of Doyle’s in college, created a comic entitled “A GoFundMe Campaign is Not Health Insurance” at The Nib. Closson’s comic details Doyle’s story, and he begins with a panel showing Americans helping one another as he states, “In my experience, Americans help one another.” Even when we are alone in our bubbles, we help each other, and “we eulogize” this mentality “in literature and art instead of political theory.” As a result, the care and empathy that bind us together severs because we do not provide basic human rights, such as access to affordable health care, for all who make their lives in the United States.

What stood out to me about Doyle’s death, apart from the obvious that we need universal healthcare, was the precarious position countless individuals are in when then graduate college, specifically with advanced degrees. This aspect stands out because that was me when I pursued my PhD. That was me when my family and I struggled for years to find stability and health insurance. We were lucky, in many ways. We ere able to be on my wife’s insurance at times, and I only adjuncted for a year. However, countless others aren’t as lucky as we are. Countless others lose their health insurance when they graduate and do not get one of those tenure track positions or even get an instructor position. Instead, they start adjuncting, cobbling together classes here and there, or go to other jobs, some where they still struggle to get healthcare.

Closson doesn’t explicitly focus on this within the larger context, but it does appear, most notably when he talks about discovering Doyle’s GoFundMe Campaign. Closson positions the campaign image in the center of four panels, each with a gutter, and each depicting chickens eating feed off of the ground in a fenced in area. He states, “I knew he had moved. I had assumed it was to try something new. So many people were seeking a place for themselves after college. I never thought anything of it. I’d left the city myself because I couldn’t afford it.”

The next panel shows a Free Clinic as Closson talks about not knowing that Doyle was diabetic. All he knew was that Doyle returned to Arkansas to look after his ailing mother. Doyle never talked about struggling to find medication, and when he moved back to Arkansas from Houston, he “left the urban safety net he had cobbled together” to help him get what he needed to live and to survive. Closson breaks down healthcare and insurance before noting that his brother in Maine, a state that “refused to expand Medicaid” at that point, between jobs without insurance, his sister who has heart problems, and his wife who has a family history of diabetes.

He concludes with three panels showing Shane. The first is an illustration of Shane from the shoulders up, with a colorful background. Closson writes, “I think of Shane.” The second zooms in some on Shane’s face and Closson states, “I think of Shane dying.” The final panel focuses on Shane’s right eye, staring at us from behind the frames of his glasses, as Closson says, “I think of $50.” With this move, from Closson’s family members to Doyle’s eye, Clossom forces us to come face to face with the issue, to put a human face to the policies that deny affordable health care access to all. The concluding panel of the sequence forces us to look Shane in the eye, to acknowledge we see him and others and to move us to action.

While promoting Call Me Cat, Dr. Mayim Bialik, who has a PhD in neuroscience from UCLA, talked about why she auditioned for The Big Bang Theory. Even though she had grown up acting, being the star of Blossom and appearing in countless television shows and movies, she noted that the reason she auditioned for the show was for health insurance. She told The Social,

I was running out of health insurance because that’s not considered a human right in this country… I had a toddler and a newborn and I had been a grad student and my insurance was expiring. I figured, ‘If I can just get even a couple of jobs, like, here or there, I’ll be able to get insurance again.’ I did not expect to be a regular on a television show. I had been teaching neuroscience. I’ve tutored Hebrew. I’ve tutored piano. I wear a lot of hats, you know. I eventually auditioned for this show, called The Big Bang Theory, which I had never seen, and it changed my life and I got insurance.

Even someone like Dr. Bialik, someone with countless accolades in media, had to consider her options for health insurance as she completed her degree. With two kids, she had to cobble together jobs all while wondering what would happen when her grad insurance ended. This point gets driven home even further when we consider the job market for graduate students, specifically in the humanities. The American Historical Association (AHA) just released its annual jobs report, and one item stood out, the number of assistant professors hired.

The AHA notes that out out of the 58 assistant professor hires, 32 of those hired received their PhDs less than one academic year before getting hired. This means, of course, that the hires favored fresh graduates. Over the past three cycles, “53 percent of the 162 assistant professor hires about which we have data were no more than one year out from finishing their degree.” What this tells us, in history, is that the further one gets from receiving their PhD, the likelihood of landing that tenure track position diminishes. What that also tells us is that those who do not receive those positions will most likely be adjuncts or instructors if they stay in the academy. While instructors get insurance, they struggle financially. Adjuncts, however, do not usually get insurance through their employer.

What all of this makes abundantly clear, of course, is that our system needs changing. I could focus on other aspects of our health care system such as race and class, and those are important and need addressing. I’ve touched on some of those before. However, it bears repeating. According to the Center for Disease Control’s annual diabetes report, race/ethnicity and education play a large role in the number of diagnosed cases of diabetes in the United States. The CDC notes that American Indian/Alaska Native (14.7), Asian, (9.2) Black (11.7), and Hispanic (12.5) populations have the highest percentage of individuals with diabetes whiles Whites (7.5) have the lowest. As well, education factors in to the equation with the highest percentage of diabetes in individuals who did not finish high school (13.3) and the lowest in those who had some college (7.5). These numbers, of course, point to so much more than just healthcare. They point to food insecurity and food deserts. They point to lack of access to jobs. They point to a myriad of issues.

The CDC’s report points out that as of 2017, the “excess medical costs per person associated with diabetes” as $9,601. Considering the income of a graduate student may, at a good institution, be even livable, that is a large chunk of a student’s salary. I made about $1,000 a month during the academic year. All of this is important, and today, I wanted to point out that education does not mean one gets insurance. I was lucky to have insurance during grad school thanks to my wife’s job, and I didn’t have medical issues. Others though do not have that same luck. If I was not married and I only had graduate student insurance, or if I didn’t have a graduate assistantship and insurance and if I had diabetes then my whole salary would go towards my medical treatment. We need universal healthcare. Healthcare is not a privilege. It is a human right that everyone deserves. Plain and simple.

Here, you will find reflections on African American, American, and Southern Literature, American popular culture and politics, and pedagogy.

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