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US graduate students protest against low pay while universities profit from their work

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Show caption Graduate students at Columbia University on strike in New York City on 1 April 2021. Photograph: Debra L Rothenberg/Zuma Wire/Rex/Shutterstock US universities US graduate students protest against low pay while universities profit from their work Student workers often earn ‘below the minimum living wage’ for helping teach courses and assisting with research Michael Sainato Wed 30 Mar 2022 10.00 BST Share on Facebook

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Thousands of graduate student workers around the US at private and public universities have gone on strike over the past few years, from Ivy League institutions like Harvard University and Columbia University to public state universities in California.

Graduate workers at even more colleges have organized unions in spite of staunch opposition from their administrations. Among the most pressing unifying themes among graduate student workers organizing unions and holding protest actions and strikes is the low pay, an issue plaguing graduate student workers around the US.

In the US, graduate workers take on jobs such as helping teach courses, assisting with research projects and performing often vital clerical tasks that help run academic institutions.

In Indiana, graduate workers at Indiana University Bloomington are currently considering a strike over their university’s refusal to negotiate with their union over ending fees charged to graduate workers and paying them a living wage.

Zara Anwarzai, a PhD candidate in philosophy and cognitive science at Indiana University Bloomington for four years, receives about $20,000 a year in pay from the university, and barely makes ends meet without working a side job, even as she shares a tiny one-bedroom apartment with her partner, who is also a graduate worker.

“It’s often the case that we pay our monthly bills late so that we can make it until the next check,” said Anwarzai.

She has struggled with chronic back pain and can’t afford the physical therapy her doctor has recommended for it. She’s often delayed filling prescription medications because she couldn’t afford the copay for it. When taking on side jobs either within or outside the university, she’s worked as much as nearly 18 hours with few breaks.

“We have to stop spreading the ‘I get paid to study!’ narrative of graduate school,” added Anwarzai. “As you go through a program, you realize to what extent your work in your departments and the university have benefited them. They need your labor as a teacher and researcher, they need you as someone who takes on unpaid service roles, and they need your academic and professional reputation.”

For international students, they legally cannot work additional jobs while working as a graduate student worker. Simon Luo, a PhD candidate in political science at Indiana University Bloomington and international graduate worker, is paid just $19,000 a year.

“This is thousands of dollars below the minimum living wage in Bloomington, Indiana. I’m constantly unable to make ends meet,” said Luo. “Not being able to support myself financially means constantly confronting the financial anxiety brought by low income.”

Salaries for graduate student workers vary widely around the US. In January 2022, Princeton University announced raises for graduate worker stipends of 25% to about $40,000 annually and Brown University recently raised base annual stipends to over $42,000 annually, while many colleges and universities pay stipends of far less than $20,000 annually.

Pay can often vary for graduate student workers depending on academic departments and alternative sources of funding and grants. This pay has remained low at universities and colleges around the US, despite university endowments soaring in 2021, with an average return of nearly 31%, the highest average returns since 1983. About 19% of colleges and universities that reported endowment returns in 2021 had endowments worth more than $1bn each.

At the University at Buffalo in New York, pay for some graduate workers can be as low as $10,500 annually, noted Lawrence Mullen, a PhD student worker in the English department at the University at Buffalo and president of UB graduate student employees union. He cited an internal survey of graduate workers at UB conducted by the union, which found around 20% of graduate workers at the school were making less than $15,000 annually.

“They are paying our graduate graduate workers less than a living wage and in some cases, a third of what is the living wage in Erie county, which, according to the Economic Policy Institute, is about $35,000,” said Mullen. “At UB, we have a food bank, and last semester, fall 2021, 80% of the people who used that food bank were graduate students.”

At Stony Brook University in New York, graduate workers are currently organizing a living wage campaign to demand pay increases for graduate workers, with current base stipends set at $22,500 annually. The union also reported survey findings of graduate student workers reporting issues in affording rent and the ongoing financial stress induced by low pay with the high cost of living in Suffolk county, New York.

“The teachers and the instructors of these courses are having a difficult time just getting by. Racking up credit card debt, not being able to repair their car, selling blood plasma, picking up side jobs, doing sex work on the side, just for the purpose of supporting themselves,” said John Klecker, a graduate student worker in chemistry at Stony Brook.

Low pay is emerging as a more pressing issue for graduate workers who often live in cities with high costs of living, which are currently soaring with soaring rents and spikes in the prices of basic necessities.

Preston Stone, a graduate worker in the English department at the University of Miami, makes about $24,000 a year. Despite working through summers, he doesn’t receive any pay for three months between spring and fall semesters.

“Many people, because of the increase in rent without increasing stipends, have decided to not continue graduate studies. They’ve decided to go back home or transfer to a different university,” said Stone.

At the University of Florida, graduate workers’ starting pay is about $16,000 annually for nine months out of the year, though individuals require an income of at least $32,200 annually to afford a studio apartment in the area in 2021.

A survey conducted by UF Graduate Assistants United of more than 1,000 graduate workers at UF found significant proportions of graduate workers struggling to make ends meet, relying on local food banks, and unable to afford medical care on the pay from the university. The union is currently pushing for significant wage increases in new union contract negotiations with the University of Florida, as the school has an endowment of more than $2.2bn and received $861m in research awards in 2021, research in which graduate workers are heavily involved.

“Graduate students’ work is the pillar upon which research projects are built. These are the very same projects that brought almost $900m in funding and for which the University of Florida makes prideful statements on social media. Yet at the same time, the university publicly rejected the union’s bargaining package, on the grounds of being unable to find the money to pay graduate students a living wage,” said Konstantina Sokratous an international graduate student worker in behavioral and cognitive neuroscience at the University of Florida.

“These universities make a lot of profit off of graduate students, while being apathetic about the fact that these human beings struggle to feed themselves every single day,” she said.