Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
This year, the minimum stipend for a full-time graduate assistant at the University of Maryland is less than $17,000. This is their income at a university with exorbitant parking fees; in a city that’s partially a food desert for those without a car; in a city where some of the cheapest — and only — graduate student housing offered in a partnership with the university costs nearly $15,000 annually.
Seventeen thousand dollars is not a livable wage in most of the country, and especially not in a rapidly gentrifying area that’s seeking to emulate Washington, D.C. — the fifth-most expensive city to live in comfortably, according to a study by GOBankingRates.
By suppressing the graduate student population, this university is contributing to the national issue of undervaluing educators. The Kirwan Commission recently released its report on Maryland public schools and found that a large part of the shortage of school teachers is because they’re paid 25 percent less than professionals with comparable backgrounds in other fields.
This makes sense. If someone is worrying about making rent and having enough food for the month, the quality of their work will suffer. When that work involves teaching and supporting students, it’s going to impact the quality of education at an institution.
Most graduate students don’t have time to pick up another job or devise more sources of income, either. According to a graduate school survey earlier this year, graduate student employees work 27 hours a week on average despite the school recommending they put in only 20 hours. So, in addition to dealing with their own schoolwork, they’re putting in extra hours to fulfill their responsibility to the university.
This mirrors the extra labor that school teachers do for their students, who average about 11 hours of unpaid overtime work per week. The difference is that almost 20 percent of teachers leave their jobs because of low pay, whereas graduate students can’t change or leave their responsibilities so easily.
In addition, graduate student fees for someone taking nine or more credits come out to a minimum of $810. That’s another 5 percent out of their annual income, not considering that some students need to pay more to cover specific academic program fees or charges based on their international status.
These fees are poorly communicated, and their purposes aren’t clearly listed beyond what sector of services they cover. While it’s necessary to fund certain university programs through fees, it’s an unfair exercise of power by the university to put the financial pressure of hidden fees on students while also paying them insubstantial stipends and providing overpriced housing.
There’s a lot the university has the power to fix that can help graduate students live more comfortably, and it’s not taking significant action on any of them. While incremental raises are planned for the coming fiscal years, College Park’s cost of living is also set to increase with university-backed construction to attract young urban professionals. The overall effect is to contribute to the culture of overworking educators and, in turn, diminish what they could provide for undergraduate students if the university wasn’t sucking them dry.
Sona Chaudhary, opinion editor, is a junior English and geology major. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.