When students decide to continue their education and pursue a master’s degree or a PhD, their debt tends to multiply.
The problem with student loan debt is a well-known and often discussed issue. According to U.S. News, 72% of borrowers have $25,000 in loans upon graduation, which means they would need to earn $30,000-$40,000 to comfortably pay back the money. However, borrowers in the highest debt bracket with $150,000 in loans (2% of borrowers) would need a salary of more than $100,000 to pay back the money. Since debt is nearly a universal problem for students in the U.S., finding solutions towards improving the quality of life before and after graduation is a national priority.
Although the link between debt and the recent development of graduate student unions at private education institutions such as NYU is perhaps indirect, certainly the financial hardships that poorly compensated students face has ignited solidarity and demands for negotiating power.
Pam Nogales, a history PhD student at NYU, suggests that the connection between debt and unionization is pragmatic, stating that “graduate workers accrue more debt if they are not paid fairly.” In addition, she explains that graduate students often also sink into debt when they are forced to take out loans to cover their healthcare costs and the healthcare of their dependents.
Lily Defriend, a 7th year graduate student in anthropology at NYU, has been involved with the union campaign for 3 years. She became involved because of the massive expense of insuring healthcare for her partner, and she realized that the best option is “having a union for myself but also for other graduate employees who are facing difficulties that actually prevent them from being able to do their work to the best of their ability.” After speaking with other students, Defriend says she was surprised that not every graduate student is given healthcare and that family benefits are “next to nothing.” She adds, “That doesn’t do anything to make NYU more inclusive to graduate employees who have families.”
Similarly, Nogales describes graduate students with dependents in the union as having to make a choice between being a mother and being a student. The institution claims that it is not the employer’s responsibility to make the graduate experience better; the individual chooses graduate school knowing the conditions and the difficulties.
However, the unionizers argue that the combination of expensive healthcare and poor compensation make life unreasonably challenging for many students. The notoriously high cost of living in New York City makes the $10/hour wage for highly skilled graduate students at Polytech in Brooklyn, for example, seem grossly inadequate. Defriend says that “people are working for around $10-$12/hour and [with] no healthcare…managing as a graduate employee from that.” Nogales notes that many graduate students are in their mid to late twenties or older and are working long hours as teaching assistants and research assistants, often for more than five years, yet they are paid less than workers who do not meet their qualifications.
Against the idea that graduate students must accept the harsh living conditions entailed in higher education, Defriend says, “I don’t think that [many] people in graduate school recognize that their labor contributes an enormous amount to the institution. I think they usually come to grad school thinking that they’re primarily students, and that’s what the administration would like us to believe as well. But especially for later grad students in their 4th or 5th year, they realize that actually an enormous component of their time is spent teaching and research assisting and doing work, which is wonderful beneficial work, but it is work. It’s work that demands due compensation.”
These problems with wages and healthcare are exacerbated for international students who are not allowed to find supplemental work outside of the university with only a student VISA, Nogales explains. For these students, there may be no other way to survive than to take out a large amount of loans or neglect their health and safety.
Succinctly, the problem the union campaign addresses, according to Nogales, is that NYU has gained “awards, grants, and recognition on the backs of people who suffer” from insufficient wages and healthcare. The bottom line for the campaign, Defriend says, is that “we want healthcare for everyone. We want benefits that represent the true nature of the graduate student workforce, which is that we have lots of people who have families, and we want better wages for those people who are in the lower section of our wage section right now… we are in higher education because we care about higher education and we want to make higher education happen and teach and research. That’s why we come into [graduate school], but these institutions are not necessarily any better than other corporations in the way that they treat their workers, which is that they want maximum work for minimum input on their part, material input.”
The best tool that unions have for improving the standard of living for all its members is communication, “identifying to themselves what the problems are and caring about them,” Defriend says. About the process of negotiating a contract, Defriend adds, “I find that everyone, even the best compensated workers at NYU, even they have something that they stand to gain from this contract. And we all stand to gain something from just operating as a collective.”
As NYU breaks new ground by unionizing at a private education institution, other universities have begun to question whether the traditional caricatured model of graduate student life—the image of an exhausted adult in a dilapidated room surrounded by mountains of papers, an empty wallet, and an empty refrigerator—is just a fact of life that graduate school necessarily entails. The debt that is required for many students, not only graduate students, to survive is consistently increasing. Is negotiating power for graduate students a start in relieving the future financial burden of graduate students?
-Cayla Clinkenbeard studies philosophy at the New School for Social Research