A victory for higher education in Texas

Samuel B. Scarpino

Graduate students holding major fellowships and all postdoctoral fellows are now eligible for the University’s health benefits program, thanks to a bill passed in the Legislature last spring. These fellows are among our nation’s leading young scholars, bringing in millions of dollars to our universities, performing cutting-edge research and dramatically raising the caliber of higher education in Texas. The new law eliminates a significant hindrance to recruitment for Texas’ public universities.

Changes to benefits eligibility require legislative action and, not surprisingly, this did not come quickly. It was more than 15 years ago that fellows were made ineligible for the University’s health benefits program. While writing this article, I came across the minutes from a 2001 Graduate Student Assembly meeting where members voiced their unanimous support for extending health benefits to students awarded major fellowships. Many of our current graduate fellows were still in high school in 2001. For those of you rolling your eyes, forgive my youthful reminiscence.  

This achievement is made all the more impressive given the grim outlook for higher education during this year’s legislative session. It was refreshing to see a bill bolstering our state’s public higher education system receive broad bipartisan support. The bill, SB-29, was authored by Sen. Judith Zafirini, D-Laredo, sponsored in the House by Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, and received only one vote against it when passing through both chambers. “Graduate students who are offered fellowships are among the best and the brightest,” Zaffirini said in an April press release. “Because of the lack of health insurance, however, many of them decline fellowships in Texas or do not apply. [Eligibility for health insurance] would encourage these scholars to bring their talents — and research dollars — to our state.”

The Graduate School has set up a website where interested parties can learn more about eligibility requirements, costs and benefits. I would strongly encourage all current and future fellows to visit the site.  Faculty members and graduate coordinators should begin including this link in offer letters to prospective graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. One important consideration is that the University will not provide additional funds to fellows to cover premiums. However, our talented and dedicated administrators are working hard to find ways to offset the costs of health benefits in the future.

This victory for scholarship, research and higher education in Texas required the dedicated effort of numerous students, faculty, staff, administrators and politicians. Without their support, hard work and commitment, our ability to foster world-class high-education in Texas would still be sorely limited.

Our success should also serve as a poignant reminder that representation and active participation pay off. After five failed attempts, quitting would have been the easy option. Instead, public higher education in Texas has taken a giant step forward. We must continue working tirelessly to secure the future of our state’s great universities.

Samuel V. Scarpino is an ecology, evolution and behavior graduate student. He was a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow from 2008 through 2011 and served on the Graduate Student Assembly from 2008 through 2010.