WASHINGTON — As public funding for higher education has declined, institutions such as SUNY have begun to heavily rely on graduate students to teach much of its coursework. It also has dramatically increased the fees they impose on graduate students, many for the sake of giving them “access” to school services — the same “services” they need to be able to do their job for the university.
These burdensome fees have unfortunately forced students into dire financial situations, most barely able to make ends meet. It has essentially created a pay-to-work system. It has led to the introduction of A. 7241 and S. 3916, bills that seek to eliminate any pay-to-work fees assessed on graduate employees.
Both undergraduate and graduate students are subject to these fees, charged at regular points throughout the academic year and increasing from year to year. The increase in fees is a financial response to the problem of inadequate state funding for public higher education. Fees function as backdoor tuition for public universities to circumvent state-imposed tuition caps and sustain their operating costs.
A substantial portion of graduate student income that would normally go toward paying rent, buying groceries or making car payments must be paid back to their employer in the form of fees. In other words, the SUNY system charges graduate student employees to work and then charges them interest if they can’t pay.
These fees cause enormous hardship. Every year, graduate employees take out loans, skip meals and even sell blood plasma or sleep in their cars just to make ends meet. Yet there has been no help from the institution or the state.
Communications Workers of America District 1 represents about 4,500 graduate student employees at SUNY, which employs these graduate students as teaching, graduate and research assistants. Their duties range from designing and teaching courses, grading exams and papers to conducting laboratory research. We urge everyone to call for these fees for graduate student workers serving a minimum of a half-time appointment to be waived.
Graduate student employees with full appointments are expected to work 20 hours per week for their departments and are compensated with an annual stipend and, in most cases, a tuition waiver. Yet they must still pay fees.
For graduate student workers engaged in full-time coursework, average fees across the four SUNY University Centers exceed $2,000 per academic year. At the University at Buffalo, which has the highest fees in the SUNY system, domestic graduate students pay up to $2,600 per academic year in fees.
For international graduate students at UB, fees can be as much as $2,800 per academic year.
Graduate students employed by SUNY as teaching and research assistants are not exempt from these fees, which can constitute up to 25 percent of their annual stipend for those making the contractual minimum of $10,158 (for the 2019-2020 academic year). While stipend amounts vary considerably between campuses and academic departments, the average graduate employee stipend across the four University Centers is about $20,000 per academic year for TAs and GAs with full appointments. For those graduate employees earning the average stipend, the amount they must pay back to their university each year in fees can represent as much as 17 percent of their annual income.
Students are being forced into financial hardships because they are being charged for the maintenance and upkeep of their workplace and even the workforce rather than the employer bearing full responsibility for such operating costs, as is the norm in most workplaces.
It is extremely concerning that SUNY is attempting to close their funding gaps on the backs of graduate student workers, who already struggle to pay for basic needs. This practice must be put to an end immediately. SUNY is stifling the growth and development of our next generation of great thinkers and innovators by driving them into debt and poverty.
Dennis Trainor is vice president at Communications Workers of America District 1 in New York.