UGA graduate students advocate for repeal of special institution fee

The Franklin College’s faculty senate passed a resolution on March 23 written by the Graduate Student Council’s advocacy committee to signal support for eliminating the Special Institution Fee for graduate students at the University of Georgia.

The resolution also encourages UGA to work with the University System of Georgia to eliminate the fee for all graduate students.

Bryant Barnes, a graduate student in the department of history at UGA and member of United Campus Workers of Georgia said the resolution will not directly cause a change, but it’s meant to draw attention to the issue and demonstrate broader support.

In a three-semester year, which Barnes said is not uncommon for a graduate student with a summer assistantship, graduate students pay $3,168 in fees.

Paying to work at UGA

As Scott Dougan, a graduate program coordinator in the department of cellular biology at UGA pointed out, a sizable portion of fees paid by UGA’s graduate students come from the mandatory SIF.

The SIF currently costs both undergraduate and graduate students $450 per semester.

According to a fact sheet put out by UGA, the SIF was created in 2009 as a temporary measure to support “a broad array of educational and general functions” in response to $1.4 billion in state funding reductions.

“It was supposed to die a natural death. It had a sunset clause where it was set to expire in 2012. At that time, the Board of Regents decided to revisit the issue annually. And they have consistently renewed and sometimes increased the special institutional fee, despite USG revenues surpassing pre-2008 levels,” said Bryant Barnes, a graduate student in the department of history at UGA and member of United Campus Workers of Georgia.

UGA spokesperson Greg Trevor said in an email to The Red & Black, “the SIF is a critical part of the university’s budget, providing roughly $39 million in revenue annually to support our instruction and research mission.”

He added that revenue from the SIF has become even more important in light of the 10% cut in state allocations to the university’s FY21 budget.

Among other things, the fee funds graduate student teaching assistantships, which some graduate students at UGA argue is essentially having them pay to work.

“It just seems illogical to me. I work here. Why would I have to pay fees?” asked Kathleen Hurlock, a graduate student, teaching assistant in the department of English and chair of the GSC advocacy committee.

Graduate students, unlike undergraduate students, have the opportunity to get their tuition waived by participating in research or teaching assistantships at the university. However, these tuition waivers do not cover fees, including the SIF. Graduate students have to pay the SIF themselves, usually out of their stipends.

“The special institution fee alone can cost someone $1,300 a year. And then if you add other fees, then you’re looking at $2,000, maybe $2,400. Then you’re going from [making] $19,000 [per year] to $17,000,” said Justin Simpson, a graduate student in the department of philosophy at UGA and member of the GSC advocacy committee.

“Every dime counts. $2,000 is a lot of dimes.”

-Justin Simpson, UGA graduate student

In April 2020, the advocacy committee conducted a survey that went out to all full-time graduate students at UGA. Out of 221 respondents, Hurlock said 94% indicated that they experienced financial difficulties as a graduate student at UGA and 21.9% indicated that they run out of money from their stipend payment before the month ends, every month.

Degrees come with fees

In order to receive the ability to work at UGA, graduate students must also be fully enrolled in classes. Graduate students say this is the case even after they’ve fulfilled their credit requirements and are working independently on dissertation projects.

“For instance, I taught last summer, and even though I was taking no courses, in order to teach I still had to sign up for courses, which means paying for some of those courses and the fees,” Simpson said.

These classes go by different names, but some graduate students on the advocacy committee said the classes are essentially not classes at all, but merely ways for the university to keep them fully enrolled and thereby billed full fees.

“You have to be a full time student in order to get your stipend. So if you’re taking one course, you have to fill up the rest of your hours with this, like, dummy course,” said Rachel Perez-Udell, a graduate student in plant biology and member of the GSC advocacy committee. “It’s just basically like you’re doing research, but you don’t get a grade or anything for it. It’s just what you do. And for me, I’m not taking any classes, but I still had to sign up for a full load of this and pay fees on it.”

According to UGA’s website, the SIF is reduced by 50% for all students enrolled in less than 5 credit hours.

Simpson said he no longer considers making trips to academic conferences across the country, at the expense of his resume.

“If something on my [curriculum vitae] cost me a couple hundred dollars, $500, $1,000, it’s just not worth it. And unfortunately, then your CV starts suffering,” Simpson said. “In my particular job market, in terms of becoming a philosophy professor, job opportunities are very bleak at this point. So you have to be extraordinarily careful about what you’re investing in, in this field because you might not get a return on it.”

A damper on diversity in academia

Dougan said the high rate of fees is also a detriment to the quality and diversity of graduate candidates — students from low-income backgrounds are less likely to apply to attend a graduate school with high out-of-pocket costs.

“I mean, they will go somewhere else, but they won’t come here. And that’s a problem for us,” Dougan said.

He added that this hurts the overall quality of academia at UGA. “If we were struggling to get high quality graduate students here, it hurts both research and the teaching,” Dougan said.

Dougan said individual departments can offset the costs of mandatory fees by raising graduate student stipends, but that decision is made on a department-by-department basis.

Hurlock said she is appreciative of the efforts individual departments make to lessen the financial burden of the SIF, but real change needs to come from the top.

“I don’t blame my department. It’s an English department. They don’t have money. I blame the school and I blame the university system.” 

-Kathleen Hurlock, UGA graduate student

Some students have picketed and started a letter writing campaign that has sent more than 150 letters to USG. Both the Graduate Student Council’s advocacy committee and United Campus Workers of Georgia have asked for meetings with the Board of Regents to discuss their concerns about the SIF, but have mostly been met with denial.

“We [the advocacy committee] were to attend the April 2020 meeting, but COVID happened. It ended up being a conference call [with the Board of Regents] and our issue was not discussed at all,” said Alejandra Villegas, a graduate student in cellular biology at UGA and a member of the GSC advocacy committee. “This year, we asked to join the March 2021 meeting and they denied us.”

Graduate students on the advocacy committee acknowledge that they will not be graduate students forever, but signal an intention to continue their advocacy for the repeal of the SIF.

“If this fee goes away, I won’t see the benefits, but I realized how detrimental this has been to my life and I wouldn’t want another graduate student to live through it,” Simpson said

Published by Emily G. Garcia

Enterprise Reporter at The Red & Black

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