Sociology graduate student Dustin Lovercamp learned about graduate students’ required semester fees after his classes were purged during his first semester last year. When he contacted the University to learn why his classes were purged, he learned he owed about $1600 in fees.
“[The fees] came as a big surprise,” Lovercamp said. “I came from an undergraduate university where fees were included with the tuition. When I signed my graduate assistant contract, there was no mention of fees. It made it seem like everything was covered.”
LSU’s required graduate student fees, approximated at $4600, are among the highest in the nation, according to Georgia Institute of Technology Biological Sciences professor and Director of the Interdisciplinary PhD in Quantitative Biosciences Joshua Weitz.
Like undergraduate students, graduate students must pay fees each semester. However, these fees aren’t included with tuition. Graduate students are told they will have to pay required fees when they sign their graduate assistant contracts, but Creative Writing graduate student Christie Lauder said many graduate students aren’t aware of the specific price they will pay.
“I was lucky to have talked to an administrator who said to estimate my fees at about $3000 a year,” Lauder said. “That was because I personally sought somebody out and asked them. For everyone else, all you get is a letter that mentions the fees, but you don’t get told what those fees are.”
These fees can increase substantially from year to year, partially because the University is unable to raise tuition. The required fees from fall 2017 and spring 2018 were each about $1650, and totaled about $3315. During fall 2018 and spring 2019, graduate student fees totaled at about $3890, with about $1940 per semester, according to the 2017-18 and 2018-19 fee schedules.
Graduate student fees have generally increased from year to year, but biological sciences graduate students Luis Santiago-Rosario and Alicia Reigel found that the Student Excellence Fee, first introduced in spring 2016, has increased the most.
In spring 2016, the Student Excellence Fee was $128, but increased to $305 during fall 2016 and spring 2017. Today, the Student Excellence Fee is $857 and is the largest required fee, according to Santiago-Rosario.
Graduate students take on a large number of roles within their departments. Besides enrolling in their own classes, graduate students teach and provide support to undergraduate students and participate in research. Santiago-Rosario said graduate students are often the first points of contact for undergraduate students.
Graduate students are compensated through an annual stipend, which varies by department. However, paying their required fees for the fall and spring semesters automatically reduces their stipend.
“None of us came into this expecting huge savings when we graduate, but none of us expected to pay a fourth or more of our salary,” Reigel said.
Unlike several other graduate schools across the country, these fees don’t include health insurance. Reigel said the fees can also affect students’ income tax brackets because the fees are deducted after students pay taxes.
These fees are particularly problematic for international students. Sociology graduate student Josh Hunter is a resident of Scotland. Like Lovercamp, he was shocked to learn that he owed about $1600 in fees during his first semester.
Hunter’s visa legally requires him to have health insurance, which he purchased from the University at almost $1000 per semester. Despite his health insurance, Hunter said he is returning home over the summer for an arm surgery that his insurance doesn’t cover.
Hunter said he wishes there was more support available for international students who are confused about their fees and health insurance requirements.
“We don’t have insurance back home, we have a public health service,” Hunter said. “There was no one helping me and I didn’t have a clue. You just get there and they hand you a bill.”
The financial burden of paying required fees, health insurance and other living expenses on a stipend of less than $20,000 per year is a source of stress for many graduate students who otherwise enjoy their experiences in their departments.
“This is the end of my fourth year and I love LSU,” Reigel said. “I love the professors and the community here, but the financial situation is so awful.”
Graduate students work within their departments for 20 hours a week and are not permitted by their contracts to find outside work. However, several graduate students reported they know of other students who have no choice but to find outside work due to their financial situations.
The University’s required fees can also deter prospective graduate students from enrolling in the program. Biological Sciences Associate Chair of Graduate Studies Michael Hellberg said he’s noticed a slight decrease in the number of graduate students enrolled in the Biological Sciences program.
“We try to get the best possible students, so they’re going to have multiple offers they’ll have to compare,” Hellberg said. “Sometimes there’s someone they really want to work with here, but I think there’s a number of students in past years we would have gotten that no longer are accepting our offers.”
Graduate students at the University have discussed these fees for several years. When Weitz posted a chart of graduate student fees for several universities on Twitter in April, students learned that LSU’s annual fees, estimated at $4653, are far above other universities.
“We knew ours were high, but we didn’t realize how far off we were from everyone else,” Reigel said. “When that was clear, we realized this wasn’t normal. When you see it tangibly on a graph like that, it’s painful.”
After seeing Weitz’s post, several graduate students at the University began being more vocal on Twitter about the effects these fees have on their ability to learn and work. Santiago-Rosario even posted his own graph showing how graduate student fees have increased from year to year.
Santiago-Rosario and Reigel are advocates for a graduate student fee waiver, similar to the tuition waiver graduate assistants receive. They stressed that graduate students’ concerns about their fees should not be taken as a sign of unhappiness with their experience at the University.
“We love LSU,” Reigel said. “We love working with the undergrads and teaching and mentoring them. I can imagine all the things we could do to benefit the undergrad experience if we weren’t worried about this.”