$1,632. What does that number mean to you? Is it a round-trip ticket to a research conference in London? Is it car repairs? Is it the cost of having your child on your health insurance? Maybe it is food or rent for two months? These are some of the choices made by graduate students when it comes to a stipend level that is rapidly being dwarfed by increasing costs of living, as well as those of graduate enrollment.
$1,632 reflects the annual burden of the Special Institutional Fee (SIF). This one fee alone represents the loss of an entire paycheck for us. It forces us to ask whether we should take out additional loans.
Some of us could, but keep in mind that many graduate students fall into one of two categories: Either we entered Tech with undergrad debt and are quickly approaching dangerous levels of life-long debt, or we are international students and do not have the same access to student loans. In addition to the incredible financial burden, this fee imposes is the knowledge that it was implemented in lieu of a tuition increase due to HOPE, an undergraduate-only scholarship.
The results of a survey to which nearly half the graduate population responded were presented to President Peterson and key members of his cabinet at the end of March. The administrators listened as they were shown testimonials describing how dire the grad experience is: How many of us need to choose between living in safe areas and affordable rent, buying food for our families or paying fees or how many seek external employment (beyond the “normal” 50-70 hours on campus) simply to make ends meet.
At the end of the presentation, we lobbied for reanalysis of cost of living in Atlanta, uniform language including cost of fees on acceptance letters across all schools and that they recommend to the University System of Georgia’s Board of Regents to roll the SIF into grad tuition over a multiyear period. This last request specified a desired reduction of $94 per semester effective Fall 2014, bringing the total to $450 per semester, in line with the next closest USG universities.
After over a week of silence, an official response was provided. The administration will be performing a cost analysis to benchmark our financial package with those of peer institutions taking “tuition, fees, medical coverage, etc.” into consideration. This is to see if we are losing prospective recruits, even though faculty and student testimonials stated that we are. Additionally, they are progressing on unifying acceptance letter language so those would-be students know about the fee rates.
But what of existing students, you ask? The administration says that they will “continue to work with the System office staff and Regents to advocate that all or part of the SIF be rolled into tuition for graduate students. Again, we must tell you that it appears unlikely for that to happen anytime soon, but the President is supportive of that and will continue to work toward it.”
From our perspective, this is not acceptable. Given this is not a new issue and that the mandatory fees have only increased in the past five years, the lack of a proposed immediate action plan for reducing fees does not bode well.
Many graduate students at Tech are suffering a financial crisis right now and we do not believe our request is unreasonable or unwarranted. Given our excessive mandatory fee burden, to not see even this minimal request elicit immediate action adds insult to injury.
This is far from over. Senator Johnathan Lyon, candidate for Graduate President, has declared his intent to continue this fight. He will not be alone as the Graduate Student Government Association continues to pursue every option for reducing the burden of the SIF on our fellow students.
We will continue to be the voice that you need and deserve.
Chancellor Huckaby and members of the Board of Regents, if you stand by your statement that “Maintaining affordable tuition and fees remains one of the highest priorities of the University System of Georgia,” listen to Tech graduate students. Listen to President Peterson and Tech Administrators. Reduce the SIF for graduate students at Tech!