Graduate School considers revamping assistant pay

Sam Black

Tuition remission benefits, which are offered to graduate students who assist in teaching and research, assures students they won’t have to worry about paying school bills.
Mark Brenner, dean of the Graduate School, said the University’s current system of tuition remission needs retooling. Brenner said there have been deficits in the graduate-tuition reimbursement pool and departments contribute to the pool unequally.
Brenner discussed tuition remission Monday and Tuesday with concerned faculty members and students in well-attended open forums. “This is really a work in progress, not something we just want to implement,” he said.
To address problems with the current system, Brenner has proposed that the University switch to a direct-charge tuition payment system.
Departments currently pay for teaching and research assistants by paying into a Graduate School-wide pool. That pool then pays students’ tuition as a fringe benefit for employment. Beginning next year, Brenner said, departments would be charged directly for the tuition per credit their students take.
In 1995-96 University tuition remission costs were underestimated by 19.5 percent, Brenner said. With tuition demands increasing, the fringe benefit pool was about $4 million short.
Brenner said competitive programs forced by the market to pay higher salaries are contributing more than their fair share to the pool.
Departments currently determine the amount of their contribution to the fringe-benefit pool based on the salaries they pay their graduate assistants. The inequality occurs because departments that pay their graduate assistants a higher salary contribute more money to the pool, even though tuition costs don’t vary among departments.
The Institute of Technology lost between $500,000 and $1 million because of the pool last year, said Ted Davis, the school’s dean. “You don’t pay according to the services that you get; the direct payment plan is supposed to remove those inequities.”
“We need to find some ways of really assuring the low-salaried departments that they’ll have resources for them to continue to admit graduate students,” Brenner said.
One way to do so would be to identify resources that will reduce the impact of switching to a direct-charge system, he said. For example, the biennial budget request has money in it to help departments make the adjustment.
This fall, “in order to put limitations on the budget,” Brenner said, a course credit limit was implemented on graduate students. Now, in order to qualify for full-tuition remission, students must take between seven and 12 credits.
Tom Foster, the president of the Council of Graduate Students, said the seven credit minimum is good because it will encourage students to take more credits. He added that the limit was implemented to put cost restraints on the tuition remission system.
However, Foster said the 12-credit maximum is problematic because it will limit the kinds of classes that graduate students can take to enhance their degrees.
Foster is also worried that direct payment will lead to fights between graduate students and their advisors over whether or not to take a course based solely on monetary concerns.
If it turns out the departments will have to pay for courses above the degree requirements, Davis said, students won’t take extra courses they don’t need.
Besides keeping the current system or implementing a direct-payment program, Brenner discussed a third option, which would eliminate tuition remission completely by increasing the pay of graduate assistants to cover tuition. Graduate students would then be billed directly for the credits they take, much like an undergraduate student. This would, in theory, decrease the role of the pool.
Davis said he finds the third option totally acceptable.
This summer, at the University of Iowa, graduate students formed a union in order to fight a similar proposal that bills students for their credits directly, Brenner said.
All of the proposals have problems, Foster said. “But we’re taking a stand against the little-known third option. Hopefully the majority of students will not be adversely affected by any change,” he said.
Brenner’s plan will next go to the University Senate’s finance and planning committee. “We are going to try to resolve this within the next 30 days,” Brenner said. “We ought to do everything we can for a direct-charge system.”