UGA Fees Gouge Low-Paid Graduate Students

Graduate School Dean Ron Walcott

In an announcement of a new fund for graduate students, UGA recently said that it has increased the base doctoral assistantship rate from $46,062 to $56,613 since the 2013–2014 school year. The same press release publicizes a new $250,000 “Degree Accelerator” fund that would benefit between 50–100 graduate students, with awards up to $5,000. This fund is meant to offset the disruption caused by COVID-19 to graduate student research and degree completion time. 

This advertisement belies the actual financial situation of graduate students, misrepresents the relationship between graduate students and the university and makes it seem that UGA is fairly compensating graduate student work. In actively deceiving the public, UGA fails to live up to one of its three pillars: wisdom. 

UGA unabashedly misleads the public about graduate student income by concealing how base assistant rates do not reflect stipends. Graduate students do not actually receive $56,613. That figure is what graduate students would receive if their official stipend contract duties were 40 hours a week. However, graduate students are officially contracted to work only around 14–20 hours a week, despite often working more than that, and most are not permitted to have second jobs. Graduate students are on 3/9 or 4/9 assistantships, which cuts base assistant rates by more than half. Stipends are around $20,000 a year, pre-taxes.  

While we appreciate UGA’s recognition of the disruption and increased workload caused by COVID-19, UGA has ultimately failed to address the financial precarity of graduate students prior to COVID-19. The creation of UGA’s graduate student emergency fund and its subsequent increase from $50,000 for 24 students to $423,000 for 335 students between November 2019 and March 2021 reflects the growing financial precarity of graduate students. Respondents to an April 2020 survey about graduate student finances conducted by members of the UGA Graduate Student Council (GSC) reported difficulties feeding their children, inability to pay medical bills and having to give up professional development opportunities that would cost money. Of the 221 respondents, 94% reported experiencing financial difficulties. Thus, while UGA touts that it “has increased the graduate stipend rates by an average of 2–5% per year in six of the past seven years,” these efforts are insufficient. 

Compounding the financial precarity caused by inadequate stipends are the staggering mandatory fees paid by graduate students. Over the course of a year, these fees can total up to $4,426. At $450 per semester, the largest fee is the special institutional fee (SIF). Graduate students enrolled during the fall, spring and summer pay $1,350 annually. The SIF is a heavy financial burden; for those with stipends around $20,000, it amounts to 6.5% of one’s annual income. UGA’s graduate student fees are unusually and appallingly large–the fourth-highest graduate student fees in the nation, among a list of 70 comparable universities.

The SIF is also the most egregious fee. Initially set at $100 per semester, the Board of Regents instituted this fee as a temporary austerity measure in 2009. Not only has the fee persisted despite last year’s USG budget exceeding the 2009 budget, but it has also increased by 350% over the years. Furthermore, the SIF does not pay for a service, unlike the technology or green fees. While university administration is largely opaque regarding how this money is used, it does state that the SIF funds graduate teaching assistantships. Did those increases to the SIF mean that graduate students helped pay for the 2–5% increase to their own stipends as well?  

Since graduate students must be enrolled with full-time credit hours to receive their stipends, graduate students are paying to receive their paychecks. This is even true when graduate students are simply seeking to work over the summer, when they often do not take any classes, or when taking filler research course credits for classes that never meet after they have finished their course requirements. 

Moreover, in a letter to the Franklin Faculty Senate, Graduate School Dean Ron Walcott noted that this fee also provides a 50% health insurance premium subsidy for graduate workers. While intending to show the SIF benefits for graduate students, this claim elides how graduate students are still subsidizing their own subsidy, even while not all graduate students receive their insurance from UGA.

The GSC passed a resolution to eliminate the SIF on Apr. 2, 2020. We never received a response from Walcott about the resolution. A year later, Walcott suddenly took interest in this issue, but not to support graduate student workers. His letter actively attempted to undermine efforts to pass a similar resolution in the Franklin Faculty Senate—which did pass, in spite of Walcott’s efforts, on Mar. 23. In this letter, Walcott acknowledged that he was aware of the GSC resolution. Why, then, did he never contact members of the GSC?

The student emergency and accelerator funds and the increased stipends are misdirected, temporary and superficial solutions to a much deeper problem. Stipends are still inadequate, and fees are way too expensive. The repeal of the SIF would help graduate students avoid needing the “Degree Accelerator” fund in the first place. UGA highlights this fund as a way to demonstrate that it cares for graduate students. Yet, UGA fails to provide serious opportunities to listen to graduate student concerns and ignores the years-long effort to repeal a fee and ensure all graduate students have more financial security.

This failure is not the way to show appreciation for graduate students. We are not just students; we are workers who give so much to promote higher education in Georgia. We are the ones that UGA purportedly “deeply values” because “UGA’s research, instructional and service missions benefit directly from” us. Each semester, the university functions because graduate workers grade assignments, teach their own classes, run laboratories and do other research and teaching tasks. With each three-hour course costing $2,447, graduate workers who teach two sections of a course, each with a capacity of 35 students, generate $171,325 of revenue for UGA every semester. Additionally, graduate student workers contribute to research, present at international conferences and publish papers. 

Graduate workers are value creators. It is time that we are respected as such. Without our labor, administrative jobs cannot exist. Bearing this in mind, answering our emails and meeting requests about fees that devastate our livelihood is a simple request. If the UGA administration really wants to help, though, a substantial first step would be to eliminate the SIF for graduate student workers.