Why Graduate Students of America Are Uniting

With the cost of advanced degrees on the rise, master's and Ph.D. candidates who work for their universities are organizing for better compensation.

Jae C. Hong/AP

From protests against the Vietnam War to fervent campaigns for civil rights and women’s liberation, university campuses in the U.S. once figured as hubs of political and cultural activism. And while the level of civic engagement at colleges has been in decline since its heyday half a century or so ago, students are again emerging as activists determined to challenge what they see as major injustices of the system.

Those activists, however, are a specific breed of college folk: graduate students. And they are, arguably, becoming more engaged than ever—protesting administrations, lobbying legislators, and mounting large-scale outreach campaigns. But instead of advocating for causes outside the world of academia, they're fighting to improve their status on college campuses. They're now organizing around the flaws of higher education, condemning both soaring tuition and the limited compensation they say they receive in exchange for working in various capacities at their schools.

"The idea that graduate students should live in poverty during their time at school is something that we really chafe against," said Chris Nickell, a Ph.D. student in music at NYU. "One of our goals all along has been to make sure we do all that we can to fight that misconception."

Nickell is the point person for the school's Graduate Student Organizing Committee (GSOC), which reportedly became the nation’s first officially certified labor union for graduate students in 2000 after partnering with the United Auto Workers. Nickell says the union was created in order to increase the salaries and benefits offered to working NYU graduate students—students who, typically as teaching associates and research assistants, provide the university with a cheap yet indispensable labor force.

"Master's tuition, for example, generates NYU a huge amount of money," Nickell said. "We know that NYU made $399 million of revenue over expenses last year, so we think they can probably afford the cost of defraying the tuition of master's students just a little bit."

But such claims oversimplify the realities of higher-education economics, said John Beckman, an NYU spokesman. The $399 million number, according to Beckman, is misleading because it is not spendable income and therefore cannot be redirected to tuition remission for master's students.

Revenue specifics aside, however, it's clear that university-employed graduate students typically account for a small slice of the schools' total spending. While the salary of a full-time professor at a top U.S. college tends to be upwards of $150,000 a year, graduate workers typically receive little more than a stipend and, depending on the situation, tuition relief. Students in general aren't recognized as official employees by the National Labor Relations Board, so universities aren't obligated to follow standard labor laws when it comes to determining the students' compensation.

Now, by creating a formal union, protesting, and entering into talks with the school, NYU’s graduate workers recently became the first such group in the nation to be recognized by their university as official employees. This has allowed them to bargain for higher wages, better healthcare and childcare coverage, and other benefits enjoyed by typical working Americans.

"At private schools like NYU there’s a lot of inertia against defining graduate students as workers," Nickell said. If schools define their graduate TAs as workers, he reasoned, it gives the students a better chance of getting recognition by the National Labor Relations Board.

This inertia is part of the reason it took GSOC almost a decade to negotiate a new contract with NYU after its first one expired in 2005. After years of strikes, protests, and mediation, the group agreed to a deal with the university last month, according to the union's website. While the final agreement boosted both the salary and benefits of graduate student workers at NYU, arguably one of the greatest legacies of that long-drawn-out negotiations process is that it has sparked similar unionization movements at other schools. The public negotiations at NYU—which saw strikes, protests, and a large public-relations campaign—have spurred graduate students at Columbia, the New School, the University of Chicago, Yale, Cornell, the University of Albany, and, most recently, Harvard to begin their own efforts to organize. There are currently 31 officially recognized graduate-student unions in the U.S. and 18 more that are in the process of gaining recognition, according to the Coalition of Graduate Employee Unions.

"It’s really striking to see how fast things are moving here," said Paul Katz, a Ph.D. student who's helping mobilize Columbia's budding union, the Graduate Workers of Columbia. "A lot of things graduate students have been pushing for for a while are happening because we’re organized."

One of the biggest obstacles to the Columbia group's efforts, however, is a 2004 National Labor Relations Board ruling that classified graduate students at a fellow Ivy League—Brown—as "non-employees." The Brown decision is the same ruling that interfered in GSOC's negotiations with NYU and to this day, organizers say, prevents future unions from formal collective-bargaining rights. This leaves graduate-student workers with little leeway to negotiate.

But NYU's recent victory is again spurring graduate students at universities like Columbia to advance their unionization efforts. And, in the absence of collective-bargaining rights, graduate-student unions are fervently lobbying their respective schools for better benefits and increased representation.

"We do a tremendous amount of work for the universities," Katz told me. "We essentially keep them running and then we’re kicked out and sent into an academic labor market that is completely punishing."

A Columbia spokesman, Robert Hornsby, acknowledged the challenges of pursuing a Ph.D. but said that giving graduate students collective-bargaining rights would detract from their academic experience. "Our concern is that the unique academic program—and collaboration with faculty mentors—that each individual student develops in graduate school are unlike a typical employer-employee relationship, and are not well served by a one-size-fits-all collective bargaining process," he said in an email.

But graduate-student workers point out that the biggest assault on their academic experiences are soaring fees charged by the universities themselves. Much attention in both the media and policy circles has centered on the rising cost of higher education in the U.S.—and undergraduate programs have been the primary target. But graduate programs, too, have seen costs increase at similar or even greater percentages, according to a 2014 report by the New America Education Policy Program. What’s more, many graduate students—and Ph.D. candidates in particularbelieve that they are being exploited, citing the meager compensation they receive for the services they provide to their universities. And, unlike undergrads, graduate students aren't eligible for Pell grants, which can force them to rely on loans that handicap them long after graduation. Though the financial burden is most extreme for medical and law students, the debt often faced by those graduating with doctorate and master's degrees is hardly negligible.

The New America Foundation analysis shows a surge in average graduate-student debt between 2004 and 2012. According to the study, which was based on Department of Education data, average debt for master’s students at the 75th percentile of indebtedness increased from $54,000 to $85,000, adjusting for inflation. The study found that while many undergraduate students have
"manageable" degrees of debt, those who pursue further postsecondary education are often crippled by massive piles of unpaid loans. Law students in the 50th percentile of indebtedness owe roughly $128,000 on average when they graduate, according to the report. For med students, that figure jumps to $200,000 in the 75th percentile and $250,000 for those in the 90th.

Graduate-school activists are quick to point out the differences between graduate and undergraduate loans. "Grad students had to pay higher interest rates [than undergrads] for taking out unsubsidized student loans, which was essentially a tool to make large profits off of a very reliable population," said Jesse Kremenak, a Ph.D. student at the University of Missouri and a former director of legislative affairs for the National Association of Graduate Professional Students, an organization that represents and lobbies for graduate students. Indeed, graduate students' interest rates for unsubsidized loans are nearly 2 percent higher than they are for undergraduates. And graduate students don't qualify for any federally subsidized loans.

The New America Foundation report also found that while graduate students nationally account for 14 percent of university enrollment, they procure roughly 40 percent of the overall student debt. This is in part because graduate students' borrowing limit is significantly higher than it is undergrads. While undergraduate Stafford loans are capped at $7,500, graduate students may take out $20,500 a year under the same federal loan program, according to U.S. News. In addition, unlike undergrads, graduate students can apply for PLUS loans, which can cover their entire annual out-of-pocket costs, including tuition, food, and living expenses.

Challenging the fairness of the higher loan limits and interest rates, Kremenak pointed out that graduate students are less prone than undergrads to default on their loans. Indeed, as the New America Foundation report notes, graduate students defaulted on their Stafford loans at a rate of 5.4 percent in 2015; the rate was 19.7 percent among undergraduates for the same year.

To combat the rising costs, nonprofits like the National Association of Graduate Professional Students and the Council of Graduate Schools promote policies to alleviate the financial burden on students. The council, which represents and advocates on behalf of graduate schools across the country, also conducts research and provides information to students about the availability of loans, earning potential, and career possibilities. According to the council's associate vice president, Daniel Denecke, the skyrocketing price of graduate education has spurred a movement to promote transparency within universities and the organizations advocating on their behalf.

"We’re trying to enhance financial education," Denecke told me. "This gives students a snapshot of what the national median debt and salary is for their prospective field."

Meanwhile, the value of graduate school is unclear. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 5 percent of jobs require some form of graduate education, whether a master's, professional, or doctoral degree.* The recession did cause an uptick in the number of people applying to graduate programs, but many Millennials struggle to find employment. Unfortunately, lots of those students seem to have graduated without the payoff they may have envisioned.

"The model that you go to graduate school and ultimately you float seamlessly into a tenured track position doesn’t work anymore," Katz said. "There are way more grad students than [there are] tenure-track positions."

* This article previously stated that one-third of all jobs require some form of graduate education. We regret the error.