A new group of Colorado State University graduate assistants is urging the college’s executive leadership to abolish mandatory graduate student fees, a move similar to one recently finalized at its competitor, the University of Colorado Boulder.
About 70 graduate students recently formed the Graduate Workers Organizing Cooperative (GWOC), which aims to advocate for graduate workers’ rights. The group formed after an internal report found that CSU’s ability to compete as a research institution is hampered by a lack of funding for grad and research assistants. The report found that CSU graduate students pay more in fees and have a smaller minimum stipend than similarly sized universities in other states.
“They presented this report to the president and the board of governors and asked them to get rid of our fees, raise our stipends and otherwise make accommodations to keep us competitive,” Quinn Miller, a second year graduate student studying watershed science, said. “GWOC kind of formed around the idea of trying to get graduate students together to advocate for these changes.”
Increasing wages and stipends is pricier and has larger implications for the university. So, for now, GWOC is focusing on abolishing or reducing graduate student fees, which come on top of regular tuition in order to fund nonacademic university programs such as counseling, student government and the athletics department.
Miller said she pays about $1,200 in fees at the start of each semester. Her monthly stipend, which pays her for 20 hours of work every week for nine months, is $1,800 before tax. She said removing fees would make an immediate impact in her life.
“[The fees] make it difficult to pay my rent,” she said. “It makes me really avoid spending anything outside of just the bare necessities, basically just rent and food.”
The minimum GA stipend at CSU is just below Miller’s, at $1,690 per month for nine months, or about $15,000 per academic year. All told, according to the university, it costs about $34,000 before aid for Colorado residents to enroll in a graduate program.
Kendall Stephenson, a PhD student in the economics department, said removing student fees will attract more diverse and talented graduate candidates. It’s an issue that comes up when he talks to applicants.
“If another program that you're equally interested in, or even less interested in, is gonna pay you a lot more, or you're not subject to these types of fees, you're probably gonna choose that university. So we lose out on a lot of high quality talent, I think. It's just getting worse and worse,” Stephenson said.
CSU graduate students have felt empowered lately by a similar movement at CU Boulder. A years-long plea to remove mandatory graduate student fees, led by CU graduate student workers, culminated in the Board of Regents approving the remission of those fees at a recent board meeting. The fees were eliminated thanks to a higher than anticipated enrollment rate.
“This has been something that when we look at the other R1 institutions, a lot of them already remit those types of fees,” CU chief operating officer Patrick O’Rourke told Regents.“And so this allows us to be able to not only have more money in their pockets, but allows us to be more competitive when we're trying to bring the best graduate students into our programs.”
CSU students have not had the same luck. At the recent budget setting meeting, CSU’s Board of Governors voted to approve a three percent stipend increase for graduate student workers, but that was effectively canceled out by a three percent increase to tuition and rising inflation. Still, meeting GWOC’s demands isn’t off the table yet.
“Moving forward, we will continue to look at what we can do to further improve compensation for graduate students to remain competitive and support their success. This would, of course, incorporate ongoing review of the core recommendations in the Graduate Assistantship Compensation Proposal, including reducing or eliminating fees,” CSU Provost Mary Pedersen and graduate school dean Mary Stromberger said in a statement.
Tuition and fees have continued to rise in Colorado’s public universities, due in part to the state’s fiscal structure, fueled by TABOR, leaving little room for funding colleges. A report commissioned by the Colorado Department of Higher Education found that the state’s colleges receive less budget funding from the legislature than their peers in other states, leading to an overreliance on student-supplied dollars.
GWOC says it will continue to put pressure on CSU leadership through social media campaigns and public comments, hoping administrators follow CU’s lead. And although the campaign to cancel graduate student fees could take years, the group hopes the push will continue even after current members graduate or move on from the university.
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