Some grad students hurt more from proposed tuition hike

Tuition increases are, for many, less of a concern than the overall cost of living.
May 30, 2012

University of Minnesota graduate students are anticipating a 4 percent tuition increase as part of University President Eric Kaler’s recently proposed budget for fiscal year 2013.

Though the increase is only slightly higher than the 3.5 percent proposed tuition hike for undergraduates, many graduate students say it is just another financial blow for those already finding it increasingly difficult to support themselves while pursuing their degrees.

The proposed increases, along with the rest of Kaler’s proposed budget, will go before the board in June.

The University’s School of Public Health estimates that the average annual cost of living for a single student is $16,000, but graduate worker salaries — including University assistantships and fellowships — can be as low as $13,322, according to data from the University’s Office of Human Resources.

Emily Combs, a third-year doctoral candidate student in applied plant sciences and current president of the Council of Graduate Students, testified at a public forum earlier this month about the effect the increase would have on graduate students. She joins a number of graduate students around the University in a call for more parity between undergraduate and graduate tuition increases.

Though she said she “has it pretty good” with what she earns through a fellowship, other students — often those in the humanities or who are supporting families — find it difficult to support themselves.

In an interview, Kaler said the tuition increases “still position us within the range of equitable tuition with our competitors.”

Struggle in the humanities

Myrl Beam, a third-yeardoctoral candidate in American studies, said that before starting graduate school, she made about $40,000 a year working as a case manager for a nonprofit organization. When she became a graduate student, she said her salary dropped by more than half.

This experience is common among students she knows in the humanities, she said.

“I make a lot more than some students in the humanities, even students who are on a full-time appointment,” Combs said.

American studies professor Jennifer Pierce said that graduate student workers are often unable to support themselves year-round on what they earn at the University.

“My sense is that cost of living has gone up, tuition has gone up, everything’s gone up, and there just aren’t a lot of ways for them to make very much money as a graduate student,” she said.

Many students work outside of the University to supplement their income, Beam said. But because of heavy workloads and changing schedules, it can be difficult to make a commitment to an outside employer, she said.

Sciences remain “comfortable”

Benjamin Wilson, a third-year doctoral candidate in chemistry, said working outside of the University is frowned upon and often unnecessary in his department. He makes $23,500 per year as a teaching assistant, though this is not the same for all in the department. Graduate chemistry students’ salaries are at the discretion of individual advisers, Wilson said.

Wilson’s income is supplemented by his wife’s, but he said single students in the department are “comfortable” on what they earn from the University.

Combs agreed, saying, “If you’re a single person in the sciences, you’re fine.”

Increasing workload

Andrew McNally, another third-year doctoral student in American studies, said that most graduate students work far beyond the number of hours required by their appointments.

“I think mainly because they’re so committed to the success of the undergraduates. And they’re committed to their own professional development, and they’re committed to making the University as excellent as possible,” he said.

Faculty members are concerned about the increasing workload for graduate students as well.

Riv-Ellen Prell, who has been a University faculty member since the 1970s, said the number of students graduate teaching assistants are responsible for continues to grow as the University experiences increasing financial strain.

Faculty comparisons

During unionization efforts in the spring semester, graduate students argued that their salaries should be comparable to those of faculty members based on the type and amount of work they do.

Beam said graduate student workers provide teaching labor similar to what faculty members provide. However, she said, because graduate students are not full-time employees, they are put in a more vulnerable position than faculty members.

She said these students are unable to challenge workplace standards at the University because of their “precarious employment positions.”

“We are not full-time employees, and so that allows the University to exploit our labor in many ways,” Beam said.

David Larson, an employment law professor at Hamline University, said he does not believe that graduate students should be compared directly to faculty members, because faculty members   have additional experience and duties.

However, Larson said, he finds it “disingenuous” to simply compare graduate students at the University to other “underpaid workers”  — graduate student workers at other Big Ten universities, for example.

He also said that graduate student workers’ salaries should be compared to University administrators’ income. Universities are increasingly following a corporate model, he said, and administrators tend to be the highest paid members of the University.

“You don’t come to the University for the administrators. You come for the teachers and the researchers,” he said.

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