Graduate student workers at the University of Minnesota must pay outsize and mandatory fees amounting to 10% or more of their annual stipends, a percentage that has been rapidly increasing in recent years. Britt van Paepeghem (Ph.D. Candidate) and David Valentine (Associate Professor) from the Anthropology department explain why this is a bad deal for graduate student workers, faculty, and the future of the University itself.

There has been long-simmering discontent about the astonishing increase in and size of the mandatory graduate student fees charged by the University of Minnesota in the past decade or so. Research by the both Grads United[1] and the Council of Graduate Students indicates that University of Minnesota fees are among the highest—if not the highest—among our peer institutions, many of which have fees that are orders of magnitude lower than those charged at Minnesota. While we understand that other institutions may have different financial situations and models, the comparison still raises the question: why have the fees at Minnesota gotten so big, so quickly? In this blog post, we are driven to discover some of those reasons, as well as the consequences such a large student fee has—not only for current graduate students, but also for the future of the University itself.

Though there have been earlier efforts to draw attention to the out-of-control fees, in the 2017–2018 academic year Grads United kicked off a university-wide campaign to abolish graduate student fees outright. Grads United sees these fees both as arbitrary and as an undue financial burden on graduate students. More importantly, they argue that this is a graduate student worker issue: graduate students employed as Teaching Assistants (TAs) or Research Assistants (RAs) must pay their fees prior to being put on payroll, essentially making the fee a “tax-to-work.”

That tax has increased dramatically in recent years. While the fee varies across colleges, evidence from the College of Liberal Arts (CLA) makes the point. In CLA, the annual fee for US nationals/residents increased from $782 in Academic Year (AY) 2004/2005 to an astonishing $1,606 in the 2017/2018 AY, an increase well over 100% in just over a decade. Compare this to the $328 annual fee charged at the equivalent college at the University of Michigan for AY 2017/2018. Though TA/RA stipends have also increased (in CLA, from $11,200 in AY04/05 to $17,500 in AY17/18), the fee has increased at a much higher rate, meaning students are taking home proportionally less in take-home pay from an already meager stipend. And yet, graduate students have seen very few obvious improvements in services, facilities, or resources resulting from this fee.

At the same time, the cost of living—and especially housing—is also increasing in the Twin Cities area. As such the fee results in a significant reduction in real wages, a reduction that keeps increasing in proportion as stipends remain stagnant and living costs rise. As Grads United representatives point out, the fee further burdens students who are already in precarious positions such as minority graduate workers, graduate workers from working class backgrounds, and graduate workers with dependents. For many, this means having to find work outside the University, taking time away from their training, research, and teaching. And that doesn’t even take into account the burdens experienced by international students, who are assessed additional fees.

Apart from the size and rapid increase, the manner in which the University administers the fee further indicates how out of touch it is with its own graduate student workforce. Graduate student workers are required to pay the first half of the student fees at the very beginning of the semester in order to avoid penalties and further late fees, a significant outlay which makes paying rent and basic living expenses difficult just as students are trying to establish themselves for the new academic year. First-year students are often startled by this unexpectedly large payout that the University demands. And not paying fees is quickly punished: non-payment results in a student losing “good standing” status, which in turn disqualifies a student not only—as we note above—from working as a TA or RA, but from registering for classes, from applying for certain grants and fellowships, or from serving on committees that would otherwise enhance a graduate student’s experience,

And then there are international students. International graduate students are required to pay upwards of $360 annually on top of other university and college fees. The rationale for this additional fee is that it supports the International Students and Scholars Services (ISSS) office, a crucial institution within the University. However, this rationale raises budgetary, philosophical, and ethical questions.

First, while other central offices such as Student Services or the Libraries are funded through cost pools (to which colleges contribute), ISSS appears to be the only central office that depends on a direct student fee. It is important to note that the international student administrative fee was first instituted in 2000, indicating that a transfer of costs of a core University unit to individual students is relatively recent.

Second, international students are often the least likely to be able to afford what is essentially a tax on their citizenship, even as they face additional expenses that the University does not cover (such as visas, travel home, and the added costs of finding housing from another country). Additionally, international students on F and J visas are prohibited by federal law from working outside the University, cutting off one source of income that some US national students are increasingly having to turn to in order to make ends meet.

Our greatest concern about the international student fee, however, is ethical, and arises from the implied principle in the disparity, i.e. that international students should pay extra for the privilege of studying at Minnesota. Yet, it is precisely the presence of international graduate students that gives the University Minnesota the intellectual capital to claim its status as a major research institution. Likewise, a good deal of University of Minnesota research takes place in non-US locations and depends on the good faith contributions of non-US collaborators, community members, and research subjects, enabling our US faculty, graduate students, and the university itself to claim a global perspective. Given these points, asking international students to pay an additional annual fee for matriculating at Minnesota—some of whom have even been collaborators with our faculty in their home countries—seems cynical at best and unethical at worst.

Faculty are also starting to pay attention to the situation. In April 2017, a group of graduate program Directors from 36 programs in nine colleges across several University of Minnesota campuses wrote a letter to Provost Karen Hanson and Graduate School Dean Scott Lanyon to address their common concern about the size, rate of increase, and disparities in the graduate student fee. Outlining many of the same concerns that Grads United have emphasized, the 36 co-signers additionally noted that the fees have serious consequences for graduate programs themselves. It is broadly acknowledged that the University of Minnesota lags behind its peer institutions in terms of TA and RA stipends, and every year faculty return to the problem of the U’s “competitiveness” as we try to attract the strongest students in the face of more lucrative offers from peer institutions.    

The outsized graduate student fee only complicates this work. Many faculty have expressed concern to the letter’s authors that growing discontent about the graduate student fee will have ramifying consequences in upcoming admissions cycles, only amplifying the overall trends in graduate student applications—after all, candidates for admission talk to current graduate students, and regardless of current students’ enthusiasm for their program, funding and fees are a key consideration to communicate to candidates. For faculty, then, the graduate student fee issue is neither ancillary to their program concerns nor only a matter of justice: it is having a real and material impact on the strength of our programs and of the national and global profile of the University.

Moreover, it is also the case that some programs have not always adequately informed admitted candidates of the fee, or provided details about when it must be paid and the consequences for late payment. Chief among the complaints that graduate program Directors have heard from incoming first year students is precisely how shocked they were, both by the size of the fee they owed, but also the early payment deadlines, not to mention the punitive approach taken by the administration for late payment. Part of this may simply be the disconnect in faculty understanding of graduate student worker conditions (which is hardly a new situation). But even understanding the situation may not be enough. Graduate program Directors are responsible for communicating information about the fee to candidates, but they are simultaneously tasked with recruiting exceptional graduate students upon whose success their programs—and the University at large—depend. As such, the crucial information about the fee may get sidelined or underemphasized, to the detriment of students who do not realize the financial obligation for which they are signing up.

The response to the Directors’ letter came from Dean Lanyon. His reply was concerned and thoughtful, but implicit in his response was the sense—as it is so often when a budgetary model is in question—that the status quo itself is unchangeable. (We include Dean Lanyon’s breakdown of the fee for AY 2016/2017 below [2]). Dean Lanyon noted that all fee increases are discussed by the Executive Vice President and Provost, Vice President for Research, Vice President of the Academic Health Center, and the Vice President and Associate Vice President of University Finance. These officers make recommendations to the President who reviews them and then forwards his own recommendation to the Board of Regents. It is the Regents who make the final decision about whether new fees should be approved or existing fees increased. In short, the rapid increases in fees over the past decade have been routinely voted into place, shifting administrative costs to those at the University who are least able to afford them, with little regard to the consequences for graduate student workers, and without transparency as to the reasons for such dramatic increases. All this while graduate student stipends have remained flat for long periods of time, or even decreased in value in relation to the actual cost of living. The implication is that graduate students are understood by the administration primarily as budgetary costs rather than as fundamental and essential contributors to the University’s core mission.

Dean Lanyon also noted one of the thorniest issues that revisiting the student fee raises: a large proportion of the fee is assessed by colleges, and it can vary—as he wrote—“dramatically.” In 2017, the fee for students in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences was $165 per semester; that for students in the Carlson School of Management was $870 per semester. The University’s financial model—which has negative consequences across the board—thus balkanizes the fee and makes it hard to address the overall burden carried by graduate students, while encouraging colleges to employ the same equation: graduate student = cost. While we recognize that some colleges—for example, the College of Pharmacy—charge students for materials that they directly use in their training, other (perhaps most) collegiate fees do not obviously or transparently benefit students directly. However, and once again, the dramatic and ongoing increase in fees across the board raises questions about how administrators understand and value graduate student workers when they consider the question of fees.

It is important to note that we are not calling for a defunding of the activities, offices, programs, resources, and organizations that fees are currently paying for, and we recognize that graduate students benefit from these various entities (if some more than others). Rather, we argue (1) that funding for these entities ought not be automatically linked to student fees; (2) that we need to reexamine the fee in relation to the complex financial structure of the university; and (3) that the University must revise its understanding of graduate student workers as budgetary liabilities and come to see them (again) as a fundamental constituency in meeting the University’s research, teaching, and service missions. Regardless of the fee review process, the rapid increase of the fee over a short period of time indicates that the University has not considered the real costs: the corrosive consequences of the fee to its own present and future success. It’s time to do something about this problem, and soon. We call on the administration to lift this undue, unchecked, and unfair burden and, instead, prioritize the needs of graduate student workers—US citizens and international students alike—whose labor is at the heart of the research, educational, and service missions of the University.

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1. Grads United is an all-volunteer group of graduate teaching assistants, research assistants, and PhD fellows from across the University that advocates for the needs and interests of graduate workers, and aims to organize and build power for a more equitable University.

2. Breakdown of the graduate student fee (for AY 2016/2017), as reported by Prof. Scott Lanyon, Dean of the Graduate School (as such, these are slightly lower than the AY 2017/2018 figures we cite above).

REQUIRED UNIVERSITY FEES

STUDENT SERVICES FEE
All students registered for six or more credits are charged $432.18 per semester. This fee includes $24.33 for student groups, $129.93 for Boynton, $114.83 for Recreation & Wellness, $125.87 for Student Unions, and $33.22 for assorted other programs (Aurora, Learning Abroad, MN Daily, Radio K, Student Legal Services). In addition, Graduate Students who are registered for at least one credit are charged $10.56 to support the Council of Graduate Students.

CAPITAL ENHANCEMENT FEE
All students paying the Student Services Fee are also charged $75 per semester to support student life facilities (e.g., Rec Center, Student Unions, etc…).

STADIUM FEE
All students paying the Student Services Fee are also charged $6 per semester as part of the debt service on TCF Bank Stadium.

TRANSPORTATION FEE
All students paying the Student Services Fee are also charged $24 per semester to subsidize the cost of campus public transportation.

INTERNATIONAL STUDENT ADMINISTRATIVE FEE
All international students are charged $145 per semester to support federally mandated reporting functions and other services provided to international students by International Student & Scholar Services (ISSS).

COLLEGIATE FEES
In addition, to the university level fees, colleges charge a collegiate fee. Typically, there are two levels of these fees depending on the number of credit hours for which a student registers. These fees vary dramatically in the amount and their purpose.