When Students Are Teachers, Who Benefits?

Sometimes your “professors” are graduate students. Are they smart? Probably. Dedicated? Usually. Experienced? Unlikely.

Why, then, do so many colleges and universities rely on graduate students as instructors? For starters, graduate students are less expensive than full-time faculty, and their labor covers their own tuition — and then some. With scores of undergraduates supervised or taught by graduate students in introductory courses at any given institution, the instructional savings that graduate students make possible may, in turn, help pay for other expenses across the university. But there is more to the story than just economic savings.

Graduate students do not require retirement pay, full health care (student insurance is substantially cheaper than full-time employee benefits), university-supplied technology, or permanent office space, all of which are usually provided to tenure-track or even term faculty. There’s also no need to cover sick pay, accrued vacation, maternity leave, disability, or other expenses to which full-time employees are entitled because, as semester-by-semester contractual wage employees, graduate students can ostensibly stop attending for a period of time and return in a later semester.

Substantial Time Commitment

Graduate school can provide valuable experience, as degree programs can offer the chance to teach courses while taking coursework or conducting research. This experience is not without its costs, however.

Graduate students often teach introductory courses at large universities, usually one to two classes a semester; in exchange, they receive a small living stipend, tuition reduction, and – in some cases – health benefits. Universities are not required to provide these accommodations, as the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) determined in a hotly-contested 2004 decision. According to the NLRB, graduate students are not technically employees, as they are primarily students, and giving students bargaining rights would compromise student-professor relations — notwithstanding evidence to the contrary.

Although considered “part-time work” in many states, teaching two courses (while going to school) can seem like a full-time job, and for many students, it often is. Graduate instructors are usually teaching new material that may not necessarily be in the realm of their expertise, since classes are commonly assigned based on departmental need. Crafting a new syllabus and creating new assignments can take several weeks, and lesson prep and grading are both labor intensive, often exceeding 10 hours per class. Office hours generally range from 1-2 hours per class each week depending on program requirements. Most graduate students don’t receive compensation for professional development activities, workshops, or orientations that are also required for teaching.

Little Pay

Complicating these matters is the level of compensation that graduate students typically receive. Most graduate student assistants earn a small (usually between $10,000–20,000, depending on discipline and job description) stipend during the academic year. Different programs offer different packages; some require that graduate students teach a certain number of courses per semester in order to receive those stipends, while others require graduate students to apply for teaching positions each semester, without a guarantee of funding. Others may receive research assistantships which do not require teaching, but may require that graduate students work in labs or on faculty projects. Some may receive funding without having to serve as an instructor or research assistant at all, but whose role, then, is more student than employee. And still others receive no funding, or their funding runs out before they have finished their degrees, and they turn to adjuncting to support themselves.

Let’s look at an example of how the stipend, benefits, and cost of living might be problematic:

George Mason University (where I teach), has established that Ph.D. students who teach classes are to be paid a minimum of $11,505 for the academic year, in addition to receiving six credits of in-state tuition per semester ($546 per credit hour, totaling $6,552 for the year), which is still less than $20,000 per academic year in compensation. Most graduate students have benefits through student insurance, which is $2,680 for the full year, an amount taken out of the student’s paycheck in increments (with a larger prorated amount coming out at the end of the school year to cover summer insurance).

These benefits are frequently offered through large, contractor companies, such as Aetna or Cigna, and are separate from the university’s employee options for health care, which are usually more comprehensive in terms of coverage and options. The University of California’s Total Compensation Calculator estimates that a university employee making $44,000 a year receives an additional defrayment of $16,896.52 through university-sponsored health programs and benefits, with a $6,611.36 pre-tax cost to the employee.

Factoring in the cost of living – which is notoriously expensive in the Washington, D.C. area — parking, books, professional dress, computers, transportation, annual taxes and fees, and any other number of expenses, it’s easy to imagine how difficult it might be to make ends meet while providing effective education to undergraduate students without taking on student loans.

Graduate students may have to take on student-loan debt or other sources of part-time employment in order to support themselves and their families, and may be consequently less able to give full attention to school or teaching. Even more daunting is the academic job market to come, with fewer stable positions available each year, a reality that makes the prospect of taking on unsubsidized debt a particularly risky one.

The competitiveness of the academic job market makes graduate teaching essential. It’s not just a financial boon for universities; it also provides students with the teaching experience they need in order to be competitive candidates on the job market. Graduate student instructorships are a form of job training — and they have the added benefit of helping students improve their research skills.

Of course, the total stipend does vary from teaching position to teaching position and institution to institution, so these numbers are merely meant to give an example of what one group of students are paid for their labor. Regardless of the area, most graduate students living entirely on their own means would — on such a salary — be one accident or illness away from not being able to pay bills if they were unable to continue teaching.

Efforts to Unionize

In response to these conditions, some graduate student coalitions have attempted to argue for their rights to form labor unions. There are controversies and limitations to their abilities to form such unions, though. If they hold an assistantship at a state university, students are considered state or federal employees and are therefore excluded from bargaining rights. Students at private universities are, by contrast, covered by the National Labor Relations Act and are therefore allowed to unionize if they so desire. Meanwhile, some states forbid collective bargaining unions at all.

Harvard graduate students, for example, recently made the case to organize with the hopes that a union would provide benefits they currently do not receive, such as health care, dental insurance, and parental leave.

In a few states, including California, Connecticut, and New York, student employees have been granted union rights. More difficult are the states in which academic employees can unionize, but graduate student workers are elided in the language of state laws. It is debated as to whether or not graduate student workers are even employees, an issue which the National Labor Relations Board has “side-stepped” in recent deliberations. Northwestern University’s football players requested to be considered as employees, given that they generate revenue (at personal risk) for the school. The NLRB refused to hear the case, citing that it was not their jurisdiction and effectively undermining a previous regional ruling that the players were, in fact, employees.

In dismissing the case, the NLRB noted in its brief, “In its decision, the Board did not determine whether grant-aid scholarship players are employees . . . . Rather, the Board, exercising its discretion whether or not to assert jurisdiction, held that asserting jurisdiction in this case would not effectuate the policies of the NLRA to promote stability in labor relations.” If they had heard the case, the NLRB’s decision would be “asserting jurisdiction over the single team in this case,” which “would likely have ramifications for those other member teams.” In other words, the NLRB argued that because some states do not allow the employees of state entities to unionize (as in right-to-work states), it could not assert jurisdiction over one private university because the ramifications would be for all universities. The case is relevant for considerations of graduate student labor because “student employees” of state institutions do not receive jurisdictional protection under the NLRB.

Beyond the graduate students themselves, university faculty have largely supported graduate students unionization efforts. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) issued the following statement in 2000: “As the Association’s Council affirmed in November 1998, graduate student assistants, like other campus employees, should have the right to organize to bargain collectively. Where state legislation permits, administrations should honor a majority request for union representation.”

The AAUP has continued to provide language for universities to describe graduate student work alongside that of their supervising faculty accurately. Contrastingly, a variety of higher education organizations have stood in staunch opposition to graduate student unions: the American Council of Education, the Association of American Medical Colleges, the Association of American Universities, the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources, and the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. Each of these organizations presents broad coalitions of university administrations, which are often invested in keeping costs down and enrollment up. As public colleges and universities are divested of state funds in spite of retaining state oversight, it is not surprising that state administrators are looking for solutions to help offset the rising costs higher education.

Graduate student labor conditions will continue to be scrutinized, as high-profile, wealthy graduate programs (such as those at Harvard) begin to agitate for collective bargaining rights. These larger currents of political and economic concerns will continue to have an impact on debates surrounding academic labor issues in academia.

Noodle has additional information about the state of instruction in higher education, such as why it matters if your professor is an adjunct and why U.S. university students should know about the University of Toronto strike.