Stipends to rise for graduate students

by Brian Edwards

Stipends for graduate students at the University of Minnesota are getting a boost in the upcoming year.
The Council of Graduate Students and school administrators are taking steps to alleviate financial burdens for graduate students, who — despite stipends for their teaching assistant work — often need additional jobs or loans to support themselves. 
After COGS unanimously passed a resolution in April that called for an increase in University financial support for graduate students, University administrators are increasing payment by 2 percent across the board next year. Amid the increase, some are noting disparities among stipends students earn in different departments.
Excluding tuition, taxes and fees, the estimated living cost for a graduate student is about $15,000, although outgoing COGS President Andrew McNally said actual costs ring in at about $17,000.
Increasing stipends by a flat percentage like the University is doing increases the gap between the minimum and maximum stipend, which can be an issue, said Assistant Vice Provost of Graduate Education Belinda Cheung.
“Students are really looking at the dollar amount and not the percentage increased each year,” Cheung said, “and the dollar amount increase is bigger for the top.”
Other disparities exist, as well. Historical data show biomedical and engineering students are paid the most, Cheung said, while arts, humanities and social sciences students tend to be on the low end of the pay spectrum.
For example, students in the biochemistry, molecular biology and biophysics program receive $25,000 each year. Sociology students receive a stipend of about $15,000.
Despite its smaller stipends in comparison to some other colleges, the College of Liberal Arts is able to stay competitive and attract students in a variety of ways, its leaders say.
CLA offers a highly competitive fellowship — which is similar to a scholarship — with a $25,000 stipend the first year and thousands of dollars of support in subsequent years. Students join CLA not only for a stipend but also because of the opportunities within the program, said Alex Rothman, associate dean for research
and graduate programs.
Although many people question why certain students are paid more for doing a similar job, Cheung said, the answer lies in the market. 
Schools calculate their stipends to match those of their counterparts at other universities, and the University of Minnesota is in line with national trends. Certain programs are highly competitive, and colleges within the University do their best to match offers from fellowships outside the University, she said.  
COGS recently began discussing the introduction of a resolution requiring a minimum livable wage for graduate students, Cheung said, adding that the difference in pay between the top earners and the lowest might not matter to students if the bottom rung were raised.
Incoming COGS President Nicholas Goldsmith said discussion about a stipend increase is one of the most important issues for every graduate student.
“I am on fellowship, and it allows me to focus on my research without having to worry about needing to find funding for the future,” he said.