Gov. John Bel Edwards has signed a bill into law that would create better transparency about stipend packages for certain graduate students.
Act 664, signed by Edwards on the 18th, will go into effect in 2024. The bill was sponsored by Sen. Cleo Fields, D-Baton Rouge.
Under this law, universities are required to provide payment or waivers for mandatory graduate fees for graduate students that have research assistantships, teaching assistantships or curator assistantships.
The payment can be a waiver of fees or additional payments included within the stipend packages of graduate students.
Justin Martin, an incoming masters student in U.S. history, shared his thoughts on the new law.
“I think having this issue addressed is gonna provide a better experience for the students and also a better experience for LSU trying to attract those students,” Martin said.
At LSU, mandatory fees for graduate students for the 2022-2023 school year are almost $2,000 per semester depending on how many hours the student takes.
Adam Dohrenwend, a Ph.D. student in geography and anthropology, has served as a student senator and a member United Campus Workers Louisiana. He called these mandatory fees “veiled tuition.”
LSU cannot change its tuition without a two-thirds vote of the legislature, so to deal with decreasing state funding, they implement mandatory fees.
These fees include the academic excellence fee, mass transit fee, student media fee and others. While some of these fees go towards the operation of resources used by most students, others are just another way for the university to garner funds from students to pay for faculty salaries.
The student excellence fee makes up a large portion of the mandatory fees. This year it totals $857. During a graduate school town hall in 2019, it was announced that this fee would be phased out for teaching assistants. All other assistantship positions are required to pay this fee.
Under an assistantship, graduate students work for the university in some capacity. Teaching assistants will grade papers, lecture and provide tutoring and research assistants conduct research. Curator assistants assist in the curation of museums. There is another form of assistantship, a service assistant, that is not covered by this law.
In 2020, LSU had 1,836 graduate students working in assistantships, but 16% of those would not have been covered under this law.
If a student works in 50% effort— or 20 hours a week— then they will receive a tuition exemption as well as a stipend. The tuition exemption does not include mandatory fees even though these fees are essentially tuition replacements.
Students working at 50% effort receive a minimum $10,800 annual stipend. The graduate packages do not include health insurance. The remaining mandatory fees are taken out of the stipend.
“We have to pay the university a pretty sizeable percentage of our pay in order to have the privilege of working for them,” Dohrenwend said.
After paying for the mandatory fees, graduate students are left with only a small amount of income to live off of. While outsiders might suggest getting another job, this is not necessarily feasible for all graduate students.
Graduate students are completing course work for their masters or doctoral programs, working on their assistantships and often conducting their own research as well. This leads little time for an outside job. However, if they do decide to pursue outside employment, they may have to get approval from their department or they risk losing their assistantship.
Martin claims the policy on outside employment is unclear. He said that he knew students who pursued outside work without telling their supervisors because they needed to supplement their income. Martin said another way that students supplement income is through the use of the campus food pantry.
Martin said another problem graduate students face is affordable housing. The Edward Gay Apartments are the only on-campus housing option for many graduate and international students, but it will be closing in June 2023. LSU does not currently have another building to take its place.
Graduate students with families cannot be accommodated by the other on-campus apartments. Ed-Gay was also much more affordable than off-campus options.
Dohrenwend played a role in helping pass this legislation. He spent multiple days at the legislature testifying before committees about the importance of the bill. Eventually, the bill was passed without ever receiving a nay vote.
LSU President Tate has previously made remarks about the importance of funding for graduate students.
“You can’t recruit Ph.D. students if they don’t have a floor in their stipends that actually allows them to live,” Tate said during a Board of Supervisors meeting in 2021. “It’s simply untenable and I’m going to say this in this context, it’s unethical to recruit students in Ph.D. education if you don’t provide those.”
Despite these statements, Tate, nor any other official representative of the LSU administration, did not appear in support of the bill.
Martin said that one way the university could better help graduate students was by providing more affordable housing. He also said that this law would set the minimum requirements, and that LSU could step up by including service assistantships under the waiver.
“Students are not supposed to be customers at a public university,” Dohrenwend said. “The state has an interest in educating its people.”