UT needs to finally eliminate tuition for graduate students

Abby Springs

Editor's note: A previous version of this column falsely stated that the University established the Graduate Education Task Force in response to the Graduate Student Labor Conditions Committee's recommendation. The Texan regrets the error. 

 “I have given up on UT.”

“I have lost my mental health trying to keep up with a ‘normal layperson’s life’ and a ‘successful student’s life.’” 

“Your system is broken. I can’t have an unemotional conversation about this, nor can I begin to describe how (messed) up some departments are.” 

“There were times when I rationed my food because I couldn’t afford food, rent and other school necessities.”

“Please, please, please, PLEASE fix this.”

Last year, the Graduate Student Labor Conditions Committee organized a survey to examine the financial climate of graduate students at UT. These were some of their responses.

UT’s graduate students are struggling. Hundreds of students in the survey expressed financial hardship — living paycheck to paycheck, skipping meals and making countless sacrifices just to survive. 

On International Workers’ Day, UT graduate students gathered to protest unacceptably low wages and high fees for graduate workers. Chanting and waving signs, the large crowd delivered a petition signed by over 3,000 students, faculty and staff members. 

The petition calls for immediate changes to graduate student payments and benefits, specifically regarding the Tuition Reduction Benefit.

UT needs to adjust the Tuition Reduction Benefit to cover the full cost of tuition for Ph.D. students. 

Instituted in 1997, the Tuition Reduction Benefit covers a portion of graduate student tuition. The benefit is $3,784 for a 9 credit hour semester, while the average cost of graduate tuition is $4,855, resulting in a $1,071 bill per semester for every student. The benefit has not increased since 2011.

“Over the past couple of years, tuition has increased, and the tuition reduction benefit has not increased to match that,” said Kelly Houck, a graduate student in the Department of Middle Eastern Studies. “Ph.D. students end up paying a portion of their tuition, which shouldn’t happen at a major, elite institution. It’s embarrassing that that’s happening at UT.”

These students are the lifeblood of the University — they serve as teaching assistants and assistant instructors, educate and tutor undergraduates and provide acclaimed research as graduate research assistants. They deserve better. 

Harvard, Duke, Brown and UCLA are among the top universities that cover full tuition for Ph.D. student workers. UT does not. 

Not only does UT’s lack of funding harm graduate students, but it harms the University as well. One-third of students admitted to graduate school turn down UT for financial reasons, which affects UT’s ability to attract talent to its graduate programs and threatens UT’s status as a top university.

“I think a lot of people choose not to go back to school and pursue what they really want to do because (they’re) having to put (their) financial life on pause,” said Kristie Denlinger, a graduate student in the Department of Linguistics. “For my field, it takes half a decade to get the degree you want to get.” 

UT has been asked to raise the Tuition Reduction Benefit before — in December,  the Graduate Student Labor Conditions Committee met with key members of University administration. The committee presented the results of its graduate student survey and requested the benefit be matched to increases in tuition.

The University then established a Graduate Education Task Force to address graduate labor concerns. The task force will provide recommendations by the end of next fall. In a statement, Mark Smith, dean of the Graduate School, emphasized the vitality of graduate students and the work the task force is doing.

However, the University doesn’t need to wait for this recommendation. The petition calls on the University Budget Council, led by President Gregory Fenves, to increase the Tuition Reduction Benefit.

The longer UT waits, the longer graduate students will struggle to survive. 

The University has billions of dollars. To put the burden of tuition on its struggling graduate student population is disrespectful to the students and the accolades they bring to the University. UT needs to raise the Tuition Reduction Benefit to improve the working conditions of graduate student workers — for their sake and UT’s. 

Springs is a government freshman from Dallas.