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“We’re the steady heartbeat of the University:” UMN grad students fight for wage increases

University of Minnesota graduate student workers across all departments are requesting a pay raise from the University after years of plateauing wages, increasing inflation and pandemic burnout.
Image by Mary Ellen Ritter

University of Minnesota graduate student workers are advocating for a wage increase to keep up with the high cost of living, increasing inflation and pay decreases during the pandemic.

Last March, a petition calling for the University to increase graduate student worker wages received 120 pages of signatures. Shortly after, the University proposed a slight pay increase, but many graduate students said this is not enough.

The University Council of Graduate Students (COGS) voted unanimously on Oct. 27 for the University to raise graduate student worker wages at their general assembly meeting. Although this is a significant step toward a pay increase, the University has yet to address the issue further.

The petition

Although the most recent push for increased graduate student worker pay started last spring, students have been pushing for increased benefits and pay over the last 10 years. In 2015, the University raised graduate student worker pay 2% after COGS unanimously passed a resolution calling for wage increases. Since then, there has been a continual push for the University to pay graduate students more.

Last March, COGS backed a petition authorized by the UMN Graduate Labor Coalition and sent it out to the University community. The petition calls for a minimum stipend of $35,000 for graduate student workers, guaranteed annual raises and a covering of student fees as a benefit of employment. More than 3,500 people signed it, including 50% of the graduate student body, according to COGS.

University administration responded to the petition in a letter sent to COGS on May 26. The letter stated the University would raise the minimum pay stipend for part-time workers by 3.85%. The administration also stated it will provide a report on graduate assistant stipends in collaboration with peer institutions to COGS in 2023. While the University said this wage raise will offset the fee increases of health insurance and the universal transit pass, many graduate students think it is an inadequate response.

“These raises are a band-aid, and I think a lot of graduate students are really tired of band-aid approaches,” University graduate student Mary Kate Wolken said. “The administration has been dragging its feet on these issues for years and continues to fail to meet the moment.”

Graduate student pay varies depending on the department and job position. After the University’s most recent raise, the current minimum annual salary for half-time graduate assistant appointments is $16,177.

Compared to other large public universities, the University has lower wages for graduate students. For example, Iowa State has a minimum salary of $20,708 for the academic year, and the University of Michigan pays graduate students a minimum of $24,055 per term.

While the University raised the pay floor last summer, it is readjusting pay to where it was before 2020. According to data collected by COGS from University salary records, graduate student wages fell by 3% across all colleges from 2020 to 2021.

“This has been a perennial problem for a long time,” University graduate student Emily Gresbrink said. “It’s really disrespectful at this point that we’re not being listened to. We do quality work for the University and that should be reflected in our pay as well.”

Gresbrink said it is hard to make ends meet on a graduate student salary, especially with dependents.

“I love what I do and free tuition is a great benefit, but I can’t put a stipend for tuition towards rent,” Gresbrink said. “It doesn’t contribute towards putting food in my kids’ lunch boxes; it’s really hard.”

Along with pay for their work, graduate students receive full tuition reimbursement as well as reduced healthcare. Although many people consider these benefits as part of graduate students’ salary packages, students say it is not enough to help them maintain financial stability.

“The lack of charging tuition and the benefit of good health care doesn’t put food on the table, it doesn’t pay rent,” University graduate student, Tom Eichlersmith said. “These are the things that people are struggling to do right now.”

Working overtime

While there are some full-time positions for graduate students, a majority of positions are half-time, capping work at 20 hours a week. Many positions are paid above the Minneapolis minimum wage, but a majority of graduate students find themselves working 30 to 40 hours a week while receiving part-time pay, according to some graduate students.

To make ends meet, some graduate students take on other part-time jobs to keep up with the cost of living in Minneapolis. Currently, the average cost of living in Hennepin County for a single person is $36, 367, compared to the average University graduate student salary of $20,000.

“I have never met another graduate student who was able to take another 20-hour-a-week job in order to make ends meet because of all the other requirements upon them,” Eichlersmith said. “It’s very much a full-time job. The University treats graduate workers like students when it is beneficial to them, and like workers when it is beneficial to them.”

Some University departments require students to sign waivers before they begin a program stating they will not take a second job. Departments use this to advise against graduate students working more than one job, however, there are no formal mechanisms to enforce it, according to University Director of Public Relations Jake Ricker.

For international students, restrictions on where they can work make it more difficult for them to pay the bills. While other graduate students have the option to take off-campus jobs, international students cannot.

“There is not a lot of time to take another job on campus,” University graduate student Wanjiang Zhou said. “I don’t think I should take a job because as a graduate student, you want to be productive in research, academics and take responsibility for your work.”

The backbone

University graduate students attend the institution to further their education, but they also serve many roles in the University from conducting research to teaching classes.

“A lot of these STEM research groups are completely reliant on graduate worker labor,” Eichlersmith said. “Without graduate workers in their groups, they wouldn’t be able to produce any research with the University of Minnesota seal on it.”

Working in the physics department, Eichlersmith has taught classes and conducted research throughout his graduate degree. Although he is still in the program, he has seen a large amount of burnout and loss of passion among his peers.

“The saddest thing is the loss of love for the field. I’ve seen that in myself. And I’ve seen my friends who have stayed or left,” Eichlersmith said. “The financial hardship wears on people and prevents them from being everything that they could be.”

Along with sitting in on lectures and grading assignments, TAs hold office hours, act as liaisons between students and professors and in some cases, teach the bulk of class material.

“We’re teaching, recruiting, doing our dissertation research, going to conferences, doing presentations, navigating job markets and a lot of us are preparing to have a life in academia,” Gresbrink said. “It’s truly like a full-time job. A lot of us are on campus hours and hours a day, even if you only see us in class for 40 minutes.”

Next steps

Although the University has presented its solutions for the original petition, graduate students are still standing behind the original action items.

“[The University] needs to raise the floor substantially and offer more consistent wages and raises that are at least somewhat pegged to cost of living,” University graduate student Noah Wexler said. “At the very least, they can guarantee every grad assistant more money year after year, which they don’t do.”

The University has yet to announce further action on graduate student pay since the wage increase in July. University administration made a statement regarding a graduate student fee resolution at the September University Senate meeting.

“We appreciate the University Senate’s thoughtful consideration of these motions and attention to our graduate student community, many of whom are not only our students, but who also
contribute to our dynamic academic environment through teaching, research and outreach,” University administration said in the statement.

“Am I really grateful to get to study and research and teach in these things and get to be part of this community of people? Absolutely. Am I content? No,” Wolken said. “My fellow grad students and I absolutely deserve more. We are considered junior colleagues in the field, but we are not compensated as such.”

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  • A Gopher
    Feb 22, 2023 at 8:12 pm

    You would need to either raise tuition or cut administrative bloat to accommodate across the board pay raises. Some of these students are supported by teaching and some through federal research grants so all grad students are not the same. Also, will the grad students all be willing to strike? Many international students would never even consider this option meaning that programs may gravitate to students they believe would not strike when making admission decisions!