University must cooperate with graduate students

Over the past weeks, leaders of the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly have been working with the Graduate School to alleviate problems with summer tuition benefits for graduate assistants. Recently, Associate Dean George Green announced a measure that will resolve some of the problems this summer.
Meanwhile, Graduate School Dean Christine Maziar has made a commitment to work with GAPSA to find a permanent solution. To understand this issue, one has to delve into the complicated worlds of Graduate School registration requirements, graduate-assistant fringe-benefit rates, and federal tax regulations.
Aside from taking classes at the University, many graduate students are employed as teaching or research assistants — graduate assistants, collectively. In addition to being paid for their work, graduate assistants receive other benefits, such as health care coverage and a tuition benefit.
During the academic year, the department that employs the student is required to pay for the student’s tuition in an amount proportional to the number of hours the student works. Any graduate assistant is also employed to work over the summer, but departments have the option of not paying for summer tuition.
However, with the exception of some international students, if the student doesn’t register for classes over the summer, both the department and the student must pay Federal Insurance Contributions Act taxes — Social Security and Medicare.
Obviously, students prefer to receive a full tuition benefit so that they can register and avoid paying FICA.
Departments prefer to pay whichever is less: FICA or the summer tuition benefit. If the tuition benefit costs more than FICA, then the department will not pay the tuition benefit, and both the student and the department will have to pay FICA. During the academic year, if a graduate student works 20 hours a week, a so-called 50 percent appointment, the department pays for his or her entire tuition.
Under the old quarter system, a student working 20 hours a week during the summer and receiving the summer tuition benefit would essentially have his or her entire tuition paid for one of the two summer sessions, but not both. Under the new semester system, the two summer sessions were replaced with a single summer session that is shorter than a full semester. So, while a student working for 20 hours per week in the academic year earns a full tuition benefit, a student working 20 hours a week over the summer wouldn’t earn the full benefit because he or she doesn’t work for as many weeks.
Many graduate students who would be working 20 hours a week expected to receive a full tuition benefit over the summer since they had previously received a full tuition benefit to use in one of the two old summer sessions. Most were shocked to learn that they would only be receiving two-thirds of a full tuition benefit because the new summer session is only two-thirds as long as an academic-year semester.
The situation was particularly acute for a special class of advanced graduate students known as All But Dissertation students. These students have completed their course requirements and have only to complete their research projects. Full-time registration for ABD students is one credit per semester. When many ABD students with a 20-hour-a-week graduate assistantship prepared to register for the summer, they learned that their employing departments would only be paying for two-thirds of a credit and they would have to pay for the extra one-third of a credit out of pocket.
To many, this was a violation of the principle that a 50 percent appointment (20 hours of work per week) provides a full tuition benefit. Others saw it as a double-standard that the University would charge them for tuition in one-credit increments but would provide them with employment benefits in fractions of a credit.
The Graduate School was barraged with complaints from both graduate students and the departments that employed them.
On May 9, student leaders from GAPSA met with Dean Maziar and Associate Dean Green. At that meeting, Dean Maziar promised to work to resolve the problem so that students receiving a 50 percent appointment next summer would receive a full tuition benefit. However, GAPSA President Ben Solomon and Executive Vice President Phillip Cole urged Maziar to take action this year. Dean Maziar and Associate Dean Green rose to this challenge and developed a partial solution for this summer.
All ABD students working more than 195 hours and receiving a tuition benefit will receive a full one-credit tuition benefit. The Graduate School will absorb the cost of tuition for the extra one-third credit that is not paid for by the employing department.
While this solution provides relief to many graduate students, more work must be done.
This measure only addresses the concerns of ABD students. Graduate students who have not yet completed their course work will still receive two-thirds of a tuition benefit for 20 hours a week of work this summer.
Moreover, the Graduate School might not be able to absorb the cost of one-third of a credit of tuition for hundreds of students in future summers.
The simple solution would be to raise the summer fringe-benefit rates so that departments have to pay more toward tuition in the summer. However, such a solution would be unacceptable. If fringe-benefit rates increase significantly, it will become cheaper for most departments to pay FICA instead of the tuition benefit.
By raising the fringe rates, the Graduate School might balance its books, but graduate students would end up paying FICA and would be considerably worse off. Moreover, the University as a whole would be worse off because precious University funds would go to the IRS instead of staying within the walls of the University where they do us all more benefit.
In light of the recent graduate-assistant unionization drive and the fall in the rankings of a number of graduate programs, the University needs to act aggressively to bolster graduate-assistant compensation, not undermine it. The University of Minnesota must compete for top students if it wants to remain a leading research institution.
How the University resolves this issue will send a clear message as to whether administrators are committed to strengthening graduate programs by continually striving to offer a more attractive environment for graduate students, or whether they are content to focus only on short-term finances at the expense of graduate-student morale and, ultimately, our ability to recruit high-caliber graduate students.
The leaders of GAPSA are committed to continue working with the Graduate School to find a workable long-term solution to the summer-tuition benefit problem. Given the effectiveness both have displayed so far, we have reason to be cautiously optimistic.

Paul A. J. Enever is a member of the Senate Consultative Committee, the Graduate and Professional Student Association Executive Committee and the vice president for finance of the Council of Graduate Students. He welcomes comments at [email protected]