We get paid to go to school?!
I had this misconception about graduate school. See, I thought that when I worked for the university, added to the research landscape, and taught undergraduate courses, my own tuition and student fees would be paid. Even when I entered the University of Iowa for graduate school, I didn’t completely understand the financial obligations that are placed on students.
My first year as an instructor and employee of the university, I was quarter-time. That meant I would get 25% of a salaried employee (just over $10,000 per year). Additionally, because of my graduate student status, I’d receive a “tuition waiver.” This benefit sealed the deal and made graduate school sort of “affordable.”
Across the graduate colleges at the university, the majority of students received a 100% tuition waiver. Inexplicably, my college didn’t receive that benefit. That meant that around $2,000 per year of my tuition would come from the “paychecks.” To make matters worse, student fees cost about $2,400 per year.
If you’re doing the math with me, that means that I was getting paid in my first year of being a graduate student: about $10,000 minus $2,000 for tuition and $2,400 for student fees. It equaled roughly $5,600. Now, that quarter-time salary was decimated. Money for rent, food, and regular budgetary expenses disappeared. I had to take out loans to live.
Aren’t we trying to “better” ourselves?
As the years passed, I was afforded more opportunities and a semi-living wage. I was able to pay off my debt with my side income and stay away from student loans through a better “paycheck.” But the tuition waiver gap and student fees meant that I still paid much of it back to the school.
Those pursuing higher educations and degrees for more competitive employment should be commended. Unfortunately, our society and system doesn’t necessarily allow for all those to succeed.
Considering the cost of a graduate degree and the years of minimized/lost wages, it is an expensive proposition. Inherently, that means that only a select class of privileged individuals are more able to pursue this education. The consequences of pursuing a graduate degree without funding and few assets can be horrific, and lead to massive student loans.
That’s why students sometimes need to collectively bargain, unionize, and ask for better treatment.
Hope for a more respectful future
Last week, the union for graduate students at the University of Iowa accomplished something amazing. After months of consternation, threats to the tuition waivers, and proposed student fee increases from higher ups, the union demanded respect. They wouldn’t budge.
They asked for a 100% student fee waiver. While they didn’t receive that, the bargain was a 25% student fee cut for those on assistantships (working for the university).
They asked for a real 100% tuition waiver for all graduate students across the colleges. And they received that! Now, certain colleges within the university system that charged more tuition will be equalized.
Additionally, the union lobbied to provide better health coverage for transgender individuals, single-parent households, and much more. It was a moment of hope — of acceptance for diverse populations and classes.
And just like that, I received a nearly $3,000 raise! Without the union, I would still be bitterly explaining — to everyone who’ll listen — that my $22,000 ($18,000 after taxes) salary doesn’t actually equal what I take home.
The importance of collective goals
Unions have been villainized recently. Take Governor Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, who said, “In many cases, [unions] exploit and abuse the taxpayers.” These disparaging remarks undercut the importance of unions for actors, on-air talent, auto-workers, politicians, teachers, students, professors, and countless others.
Historically, collective bargaining and unionization helped employee wages, voting rights, and improved safety in some of the most dangerous industries. Businesses weren’t interested in helping workers, and they didn’t have incentives to change.
When workers came together, worked towards similar goals, and collectivized, employers listened. If history repeats itself, then we ought to reflect on this lesson. Change and respect for students and others across the world will come from the bottom-up — not the top-down.