Grad students petition for relief from fees

More than 180 students signed a COGS petition to waive some fees.

Blair Emerson

Graduate student Josh Kielsmeier-Cook is working to support himself, his wife and their two-year-old daughter on his stipend as a University of Minnesota research assistant.

A chunk of that stipend goes back to the University in student fees every semester, and graduate students are pushing to reduce some of those costs.

Created last month, a Council of Graduate Students petition has gathered support from graduate students regarding fees they pay and obtained more than 180 signatures.

This year, graduate students have had to pay anywhere from about $600 to more than $1,400 in fees per semester, varying by department and program.

In a survey released last fall, COGS found that 65 percent of graduate students consider paying student fees to be a burden.

Kielsmeier-Cook said that his add up to about $1,800 over the year.

“That’s more than two months’ rent for me,” he said. “So it’s a big chunk out of my income.”

The projected nine-month salary for a teaching assistant or research assistant receiving a 100 percent appointment this year starts at $27,177 — or $17.42 an hour. But most graduate assistants never see that amount, as most receive only a half-time appointment.

COGS President Andrew McNally sent the petition out to all graduate students on the council’s mailing list with the goal of increasing dialogue concerning fees within the graduate student body, he said.

The University allows students to pay the balance in installments throughout the semester, but that option currently includes a $35 fee each semester. Late payments prompt an additional $30  charge.

McNally said COGS intends to have these additional fees removed for graduate students, giving them the option to make payments throughout the semester without added costs. He said he hopes this will alleviate the burden for graduate students.

Some students said the elimination of late fees is a good first step but doesn’t entirely solve the problem.

Robert St. Lawrence, a graduate instructor in the English department, said he has been paying his fees by credit card or with the University’s payment plan for the past couple of years.

Lawrence said graduate students typically don’t receive their first paycheck until after the payment plan’s first due date. He said the petition is a fundamental first step, but spreading the fees over the semester is not going to solve the bigger problem.

“The larger issue is the structural one of wages [for graduate assistants],” he said. “That stuff needs somebody as powerful as COGS to deal with.”

This year, some international students have to pay a $145 fee in addition to their general fees. International students with a non-immigrant visa also have to pay a $14 fee for “international student aid.”

Charmaine Chua, an international graduate student from Singapore, said she had to pay those fees when she started her program in 2009.

Chua, a teaching assistant in the political science department, served on a committee last year that brought fees concerns to their department head, saying the fees were “too much to handle.” Chua said her department agreed to levy some of the fees for its students and eliminate the international student fee entirely.

Chua said it was great that her department was able to reduce costs for their students, but that may not always be the case in other departments.

“There really needs to be a holistic view at the way that money gets puts into the University and where it comes out,” she said, “because the people who are doing a large part of the labor are the ones who are not getting compensated.”

Global studies teaching assistant Nate Holdren said the COGS petition is a good step toward reducing fees for graduate students while calling attention to them.

“The things funded by fees are extremely important, but so are the things negatively affected by our low income,” Holdren said.

He said he wasn’t informed of the fees he would have to pay as a graduate student before starting his program.

“I was surprised,” he said.

Holdren said he would like to see graduate students be able to give their input.

“We want to have a conversation about priorities, and our income is one of our priorities,” he said.

McNally said he hopes to gather more signatures from graduate students over the next few weeks.

“The thing that we’re focused on at the moment is to have the conversation among graduate students to see how many graduate students support this action and to raise awareness as much as possible,” he said.