Every student that goes through the University is at some point instructed by a TA, a graduate student who has gained an assistantship from the University to assist in educating students, usually in entry-level classes. Graduate students can gain assistantship in five different forms, as a TA1, TA2, TA3, RA or SA.
A campaign under the name of #FierceFees has revealed the financial struggles imposed upon these graduate students with by the University, with around 20% of graduate student stipends being paid back to the University.
English graduate student Anna McGill was not aware of the exact amount of money she would be paying back to the University when she first took the job.
“My issue was, there was no information about how much the fees were. My first year, the fees were 25% of my stipend,” McGill said. “So, I had to pay a significant portion of that already small number back to the University.”
A graduate student, who spoke to the Reveille on the condition of anonymity, said graduate students are not adequately compensated for their academic contributions.
“We do research, we teach a ton of classes; most introductory classes are taught by TAs. We are paying students, yes, but we are also part-time employees of the University, and in exchange for that we receive a tuition exemption, which is great, but what we get paid is barely above the poverty line,” the student said.
The average person in East Baton Rouge needs $20,856 to afford housing, food and healthcare, according to a 2019 report from the Advocate.
McGill said in her department, graduate students usually start off with an annual salary of $17,000, but the four or five thousand dollars they pay in fees makes a “huge difference.”
“And that doesn’t even include health insurance because I assumed it was offered in my offer of employment,” McGill said.
In the offer of employment, students are told their workload would be around 20 hours a week. This is confirmed by the University’s statement on graduate assistantships, which states graduate assistants are primarily students and their appointments may not exceed 50% of full-time effort (that is, twenty hours per week) without the approval of the Dean of the Graduate School.
Interim Associate Dean of the Graduate School Carol Whicks said graduate students’ hours may fluctuate.
“A 50% graduate assistantship is considered 20 hours a week, and you might not average that over a couple weeks; one week you might have to grade a bunch of assignments and work 30 hours that week but the next you only have 10, but it would average over the semester,” Whicks said. “It’s not a common issue; they don’t bubble a up a lot.”
McGill said the official contract mandates a 20-hour work week.
“I do not know really any graduate student who works only 20 hours a week. Often, it’s double that,” McGill said.
A graduate student in the College of Science, who spoke to the Reveille on the condition of anonymity, also knows of cases of graduate students working well beyond the 20 hours a week set by the University.
“They said in the offer email, ‘your expected student workload is 20 hours a week,’” the student said. “It’s not unusual to hear of some students working 40 hours a week, sometimes even 50-60 hours, especially in some of the more lab-based sciences.”
Last year the graduate school hosted a town hall to discuss these issues that graduate students were presenting, with Executive Vice President and Provost Stacie Haynie, talking to students directly. Haynie explained the University’s reasoning for increasing fees and how it affected graduate students with assistantships.
“When the state started disinvesting in higher education, institutions started to increase fees. We were not given tuition autonomy, but we were given the ability to raise fees,” Haynie said. “Unfortunately, what that meant for graduate students is that they were paying more. This was essentially a fee replacing tuition, and graduate students should have been exempted from that.”
The University made steps toward answering graduate students’ problems in recent years, with Haynie speaking on the process of working together to solve these issues.
“So, what we did with Student Government, without a doubt ‘Fierce Fees’ was the priority,” Haynie said, “to eliminate graduate students from paying for the student excellence fees.”
The University has also improved on the transparency on fees and other areas in the offer letters to graduate students, with the graduate school providing departments with a sample letter to go from.
“We got all the offer letters, and we decided what common elements we as a graduate school need you to put in your offer letter,” Whicks said. “The name of the fees wasn’t clear in the offer letters and wasn’t clear to the inbound graduate students, so we identified the language we needed to use and in turn standardized the letters.”
While McGill acknowledges the University has started to move in the right direction, she still wants to know how the University, and specifically Haynie, is consulting with graduate students about these issues. She believes the University would fail without its graduate workers.
“I’m interested in how [Haynie] intends to advocate and protect graduate workers in the future and what kind of feedback she is getting back from graduate students,” McGill said. “The work that graduate students do is essential to how the University runs.”