For many disciplines and careers, having a bachelors’ degree is simply not enough to guarantee a job; they often require graduate degrees even for entry level positions. Like education at any level, it often means taking on more debt. Graduate programs often help students by offering stipends in exchange for teaching, research, or administrative positions. While stipends can vary widely, the national averages for masters’ stipends average around $15,000, and doctoral stipends average around $20,000. On top of these stipends, many schools also offer tuition remission, healthcare, and other benefits to help defray expenses.
MTSU graduate stipends are significantly low compared with other state and national rates. While graduate students do receive tuition remission, they still have to pay programming fees with no healthcare benefits. For instance, MTSU masters students are on a 9-month contract offering them between $6500 for humanities disciplines and $6900 for scientific disciplines, while doctoral students’ stipends for a 12-month contract range from $14,000 to $18,000.
With the cost of living, especially for students with families, the lack of funding and benefits forces even more debt or risk breaking contracts to also work outside of the university. Joey O’Dell, graduate student at MTSU, says “I commute to MTSU 50 miles a day for cheaper rent and have to take full loans for the semester in order to cover healthcare expenses and cost of living,” while Eric Hughes, another graduate student, mentions “We can’t afford to purchase healthcare on our own; we fall within the coverage gap for TennCare; and we don’t have the time to get a full-time job off campus.”
A group of MTSU graduate students are trying to release some of the financial stress by fighting for access to healthcare for graduate workers through Graduate Workers Organizing Committee (GWOC) formed last semester under the umbrella of MTSU’s chapter of United Campus Workers (UCW), which is Tennessee’s higher education union. Eric Hughes is one of these organizers and talks about his reason for joining and fighting for GTAs’ rights as labor. He says “I joined United Campus Workers and helped start the Graduate Workers Organizing Committee because I believe we need certain changes. A living wage is crucial. With rising costs and minimal stipends, we are often left living paycheck-to-paycheck, especially when you factor in things like rent, which is getting more expensive in Murfeesboro.”
To put the healthcare issue into perspective, other similarly large Tennessee schools like The University of Tennessee system and University of Memphis provide healthcare, while MTSU does not. MTSU graduate workers are an integral part of being a successful university as they contribute to significant research projects, hold administrative positions, and teach a large portion of general education courses. Without graduate assistants, many departments at MTSU would not be able to support the large enrollment of new students to the university each year.
Dr. James Hamby, assistant director of the University Writing Center at MTSU, talks appreciatively about his experiences with Graduate students saying, “The Writing Center relies on graduate assistants to provide writing tutoring to MTSU students as consultants. I see every day what an impact they have on our students’ educations, and many students have told me that they made it through college because of the support they received from our consultants.” Many departments speak about graduate students in the same ways and want to fight with graduate students to gain better benefits.
Though the GWOC are focusing on healthcare now, their overall goals include:
- building solidarity among graduate workers,
- increasing representation for graduate workers as labor with the rights and responsibilities that entails,
- providing opportunities for graduate workers to voice their concerns and to advocate for themselves as workers,
- improving campus and working conditions for all workers including graduate workers, and
- expanding funding and opportunities for professionalization such as conferences and professional advancement.
If you are part of the MTSU community and want to show your support, The GWOC has meetings frequently, takes part in MTSU’s UCW chapter meetings, and hosts social events. Their next meeting is a town hall event on March 1st at 3:00 p.m. in room S208 of the Business and Aerospace Building on MTSU’s campus. This event will address the current status of the campaign and will offer an opportunity for graduate workers to share their experiences, express their concerns, and explain their particular needs when it comes to accessing affordable healthcare.
The committee is open to all graduate workers (graduate assistants, graduate teaching assistants, and research assistants) from all disciplines and departments, and is currently recruiting more graduate workers. The organizers, Amy, Dana, Eric, and Joey, want to emphasize that “being part of this discussion and town hall does not require you to join GWOC outright. There are lots of ways to be supportive, and while we encourage people to join, that isn’t a prerequisite for being part of the conversation.” For more information on the organization and upcoming events, check out their Facebook.