Graduate students petition for reduced summer tuition due to COVID-19

Lauren Grobe

Graduate students are demanding reduced summer tuition and credit waivers due to coronavirus concerns in a petition sent to University administration April 21.

Earlier this month, President Gregory Fenves and Interim President Designate Jay Hartzell announced that undergraduate summer tuition would be reduced to 50% of fall and spring tuition instead of the usual 85%. 

Kitty Ferguson-Mappus, social work graduate student, said the decrease should apply to graduate courses as well.

“This is all grad students who are in this boat,” Ferguson-Mappus said. “We have Ph.D. students who are watching their dreams evaporate because of this pandemic. We could go on and on with stories of people’s lives and dreams (being) completely impacted.”

Students from the Steve Hicks School of Social Work drafted the petition and requested a response by April 24.

The petition also requests credit waivers or refunds for students who have already paid for a nine-hour block of field experience or hands-on work in their area of study. At the beginning of the spring semester, social work students either paid for the whole nine hours for the spring semester or for six hours in the spring and three in the summer. 

Ferguson-Mappus said the University has canceled field hours but has not refunded students who already paid for the hours.

“I will pay for three hours of a class I will never get to take,” Ferguson-Mappus said. “That is just unfair and wrong.”

Ferguson-Mappus said the nine field experience hours cost about $6000.

“When you pay for those nine hours of field experience, what you're paying for is to work for someone else, without pay,” Ferguson-Mappus said.

Esmeralda Rubalcava Hernandez is one of the students who helped create the petition. She said the petition was co-written by at least 100 students at the School of Social Work.

“It just seemed that there was such support for this completely voluntarily,” Rubalcava Hernandez said. “Everyone … was just feeling very similarly. Very passionate.”

Ferguson-Mappus said the graduate students had the opportunity to add their input to the letter. As of publication, the petition had over 1,100 signatures from students and alumni.

University spokesperson Shilpa Bakre said in an email that graduate tuition was not decreased because graduate tuition differs between departments and students often receive financial aid.

“Providing financial support to these students requires an approach and strategy with the local context in mind,” Bakre said in the email. “Instead of reducing graduate tuition rates, the University decided there were more effective and meaningful ways to provide financial support.”

Bakre said these other forms of aid include awards from the University and the Graduate School’s investment of $1.3 million to create more University jobs for graduate students.

Mark Smith, Graduate School dean, responded to the students’ petition in an April 24 email and said he would meet with administration and stakeholders before making an official decision regarding tuition and field hours.

“The Graduate School and UT Austin are committed to helping our graduate students with the unexpected changes brought about by the pandemic,” Smith said in the email.

Rubalcava Hernandez said while the signers are speaking specifically on behalf of the School of Social Work, they believe the tuition reduction should apply to all undergraduate and graduate students.

“This isn't something that we're just doing for our benefit,” Rubalcava Hernandez said. “We want to make sure that everyone is included, that everyone feels that their voice is being heard.”

Ferguson-Mappus said graduate students have pressing financial concerns, such as child care, and are some of the essential workers right now. She said these students need aid.

“At the end of the day, whoever sets tuition made a choice,” Ferguson-Mappus said. “And they made a distinction on who was more valuable to them.”

Rubalcava Hernandez said the petition reflects the ethics the students have been taught at the School of Social Work.

“Equity is an important value that we have been taught by you,” the petition says.

This story was corrected to fix the cost of experience hours. The Texan regrets this error.