Penn State's working graduate students give a lot more than they get. In fact, the closer you look, the more they look like underpaid employees.
They write and publish papers just like full-time university faculty. They perform experiments and conduct much of the research supporting Penn State’s $800 million annual research budget. They teach the same classes as full-time university faculty, sometimes to hundreds of students per class, and sometimes without any pedagogical training, or even personal experience with the skills they’re trying to teach.
Graduate students on assistantships are expected to be researchers, teachers, and students simultaneously, and they’re expected to do it for salaries so low that many of Penn State’s 14,739 graduate students qualify for food stamps. MIT’s Living Wage Calculator says that a living wage for one adult in State College is $18,469 — and even that salary would make its recipient eligible for food stamps.
According to The Graduate School’s website, the median assistantship appointment is a half-time grade 12 assistantship paying $17,316/yr. The university adds full-time in-state tuition and fees to that figure, and says that in-state graduate students are actually compensated to the tune of $32,316/yr, and even more for out-of-state students.
But Penn State paying tuition expenses to itself doesn’t put food on a graduate student’s table, fix their car, or pay their rent, and it doesn’t make $17,316/yr a livable wage. In return, graduate students perform the daily work of the university, but for a fraction of the cost of a new professor (average salary: $71,500 for an assistant, $86,000 for an associate, $129,700 for a full professor).
Students on assistantships are generally expected to work 20 hours per week, in addition to the classes and publishing required to earn their degree.
When shown that figure, a graduate student in the sciences responded “I want to live in the world that author is in.”
According to The Graduate School’s website, students on assistantships are generally expected to work an average of 20 hours per week, in addition to the classes and publishing required to earn their degree. When shown that figure, a graduate student in the sciences responded “I want to live in the world that author is in.” Penn State graduate departments and programs are supposed to provide students with “the necessary training and mentoring to perform effectively and to make the assistantship a positive learning experience.” Sometimes this happens. Often it doesn’t.
Graduate students have complained about being not just underpaid but undertrained, working for faculty who seem to have been hired for their skills in grant writing rather than training or mentoring. And effective representation in the wider university community appears slim.
Penn State graduate students have the Graduate Student Association, an organization whose website boasts a free “Investment 101” workshop for grad students — again, many of whom are getting paid so little that they’re eligible for food stamps. Penn State recently announced an increase in graduate healthcare costs. In an email to graduate students, GSA president Scott Rager wrote that the Penn State Budget Office was still determining whether the university could afford the recommended graduate healthcare plan, and whether it could continue subsidizing health insurance premiums at the 80 percent / 70 percent historical rate.
He stated that the GSA was seeking a “compromise of sharing increased costs across the University and graduate students.” He wrote that the GSA would “work with the administration” to reduce the stresses of grad students bearing increased healthcare costs, which come both in premium increases and copay increases.
Rager makes laudable promises, but his ability to fulfil them is entirely predicated on the university’s willingness to compromise other budgetary priorities to keep the graduate students he represents from going further into poverty.
Judging from the tone of his emails, that doesn’t seem likely.
Rager makes laudable promises, but his ability to fulfil them is entirely predicated on the university’s willingness to compromise other budgetary priorities to keep the graduate students he represents from going further into poverty. Judging from the tone of his emails, that doesn’t seem likely. Neither the GSA nor the single graduate student representative in the Faculty Senate have any effective leverage or bargaining power with the university beyond what the university is willing to grant at any given time.
It’s time to consider a different model.
By contrast, the University of California’s graduate students have unionized. Their union, UAW 2865, negotiated a collective bargaining agreement protecting working graduate students and classifying them as Academic Student Employees (ASEs). That contract grants ASEs many of the rights of university employees — including the right to participate in university childcare, employee parking and transit programs, and healthcare programs.
Through direct action, UC graduate students have also secured tuition freezes, 100% healthcare premium payments, and job security. Just as importantly, graduate students in the University of California system have an avenue to appeal unfair or inequitable working conditions to someone who isn’t in direct control of the future of their career. The agreement also guarantees graduate students personal illness leave, and guaranteed maternity/paternity leave.
UC students are working for more affordable housing, better childcare support, and access to other rights and privileges granted other university employees. And those rights and privileges are protected by more than just the hope that the university’s definition of ‘compromise’ is one that graduate students can live with.
Penn State gets far more from its graduate students than it gives. It’s time for that to change. It’s time to recognize the contributions of Penn State graduate students who teach, research and publish by treating them like what they are: university employees.
Voices reached out to GSA President Scott Rager for comment on Feb. 25. He agreed to comment, but hasn't yet responded further.
This story was edited to correct a typographical error in the second paragraph. An extraneous 'the' was removed.