Do Graduate Assistants Get A Fair Deal?
There is nothing like a campus environment to reinforce the concept of teamwork. Few on a campus can do their jobs alone. From the loftiest endowed chair holder, hefty salary in pocket, to the newest assistant professor, everyone makes a contribution, of sorts, and relies on others to reinforce that contribution. But in the campus world, the player with the least status is most often the graduate assistant, the person who teaches lots of courses for very little pay, grades lots of papers without much help, earns three or four times the minimum wage, at best, and does it all in the name of knowledge, the honing of the teaching art, and the opportunity for training.
Is the system fair? Should university graduate student employees receive low pay and scant benefits because of their position on the totem pole? On campus after campus, graduate students have organized to negotiate for better pay and working conditions. A recent report by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), titled “Recognition and Respect: Standards of Good Practice in the Employment of Graduate Employees,” summarizes some of the challenges that graduate students face in their lives on campus.
Graduate employees are 20 percent of the 1.3 million postsecondary instructional work force, with more of them working than full-time nontenure track faculty. Their employment has grown by 29 percent since 1993, partly because there are more undergraduate students on campus, but also because fewer faculty members were hired in the same time that graduate employment grew. These graduate students are paid, on average, $11,700 in teaching assistantship money, along with $5,500 in tuition waivers. Their fees, supplies and living expenses total, on average, nearly $27,000 a year, which means they go $10,000 a year in the hole, which they cover with grants or loans. Sometimes they get health insurance, but almost half of all graduate student employees do not. Sometimes they receive professional support, including adequate preparation and training for their classroom roles, but half said they lack supervision to improve their teaching skills.
What’s the fair way to treat graduate employees? AFT, which represents some of the oldest graduate student employee locals, has laid out a set of “best practices” that set benchmarks for the fair and equitable treatment of graduate employees. They set standards for compensation, for tuition waivers, for health care benefits, and for childcare options. They call for a “substantive, paid orientation for all new graduate employees,” training and technological support, and governance responsibilities. The AFT document also pushes unions to treat graduate employees as equals and suggests that union dues reflect the modest pay that graduate employees receive for their work. In short, the AFT has produced a document so thorough that one wishes it were available to other contingent workers in the labor force.
What would higher education do without graduate employees, one in five of the workers who provide instructional services? They’d have to hire more part-time people, or perhaps put more on the tenure track. In any case, it would cost them exponentially more than graduate student pay costs. So why can’t graduate students get, in the words of this report, “respect and recognition?”
The broader question may be why few contingent employees, on campus or elsewhere, get the respect and recognition they need and deserve. Too often treated like interchangeable cogs, those who work temporary, part-time, or training jobs are paid little, respected less and utterly disregarded, despite the central role they play in achieving a bottom line. On a campus, the absence of graduate employees might mean fewer introductory classes offered, thus lower enrollment, and then a lower bottom line. In municipal employment, temporary and part-time workers may make the difference between forms processed and unprocessed, goals met and unmet. We are, increasingly, living in a bifurcated world, where some have security of employment and others do not, some earn benefits, and others, doing exactly the same work, do not. This is a prescription for institutional instability, especially if the have-nots feel disrespected.
Graduate students of color are especially vulnerable in a system that already treats graduate students unfairly. A minority of those who are doing graduate teaching have much to prove but little support as they go about their work. Too often, because faculty of color are also well underrepresented in the academy, they do not have mentors to guide and protect them. If we care about maintaining any representation of African Americans and other people of color in the academy, then we must care about the way graduate employees are treated.
With African American unemployment rates firmly in the double digits, and with employment opportunities for Black folks very hard to come by, few will be motivated to galvanize around the plight of the overworked and underpaid graduate employee. Yet those who are stakeholders in higher education, who care about diversity in the academy of the future, recognize this is an important and critical issue. The American Federation of Teachers Higher Education Division is to be commended for releasing their standards of good practice in the employment of graduate students. They’ve reminded us all that the integrity of an institution or a culture hinges on the ways those at the bottom of the totem pole are treated.
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com