John Maynard Keynes once asked, “Why should coal miners suffer a lower standard of life than other classes of labour? They may be lazy, good-for-nothing fellows who do not work so hard or so long as they should. But is there any evidence that they are more lazy or more good-for-nothing than other people?” The quote comes from the Economic Consequences of Mr. Churchill and was published in 1925, but it still feels relevant today.
What do any of us deserve, really? That’s a question I found myself asking while researching the conditions facing graduate students at Mankato State.
Right now, graduate students at MSU Mankato are paid a minimum yearly stipend of $10,000 per year according to the schools website. In exchange, graduate students are required to work 20 hours a week during the school year, which runs for 30 weeks. That means graduate students are paid around $16-$17 an hour on top of receiving tuition wavers for up to nine credits per semester.
Seems like a sweet deal, right? From a strictly accounting perspective, graduate students are grossly overpaid.
Now before every graduate student worker storms The Reporter offices pitchfork-and-torches style for me saying that, let me say this: I do not think this represents the whole picture.
Let’s go back to that $10,000 which is about $4,580 less than the federal poverty level of $14,580. On top of the 20 hours they are paid for, graduate student workers are required to take a minimum of six credits. Assuming two to three hours of work per credit outside of class, this means graduate students are working at a minimum 18 to 24 hours in their studies or 27 to 36 hours if they are going full time. Let’s assume in any case that even allowing for graduate students at MSU Mankato being able to take just 6 credits to maintain their assistantships, they will still be working full or nearly full time.
But what of the long summer vacations we all get?
Well, even assuming a graduate student works 40 hours for all 15 weeks of summer break at the current minimum wage of $10.59 per hour, then they would be able to make an additional $6,354 over the summer. Adding that to the base of $10,000 dollars, this means graduate assistants make $16,354 for working nearly full time the entire year.
Now according to the school’s website, “graduate assistantships are to be considered an award and honor.” I, however, cannot cannot help but wonder where is the honor in expecting people to work for wages that are well below the federal poverty level.
One story I keep thinking about is the one I was told about Jim Chalgren, the founder of the Jim Chalgren LGBT Center, and how he would always serve dry pasta to guests. Chalgren was a graduate student at MSU when he founded the center, and it was graduate students who maintained the center for over a decade after Chalgren left.
For more about the stories of the graduate students who had to fight to keep the center going, read “A History of the Center for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Students on the Campus of Minnesota State University, Mankato,” by Kellian Clink, available on Cornerstone on MSU Mankato’s website.
The point: Graduate assistants have made significant contributions to MSU, and paying them well below the federal poverty level — while requiring them to work full time during the entire school year — feels like a problem that needs to be solved today.
Write to Jeremy Redlien at firstname.lastname@example.org