Investing in graduate students at UW

The following is a guest blog by Laurent Heller (Vice Chancellor for Finance and Administration) and Norman Drinkwater (Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education)

You may have read recently that a group of graduate student employees have been very vocal about what they believe is a lack of adequate support. We take the concerns of graduate student employees seriously – they are our future colleagues and we wouldn’t be a world-class university without them.

Both of our areas oversee the issues in question. In this blog, we want to focus on what we have been doing to increase our financial support for graduate students, especially as it relates to key campus priorities.

In 2013, when Chancellor Blank came to UW, our graduate student stipend offerings had been below average for a long period of time. In the years since then, we have increased minimum stipends by 42% — from $14,088 for a teaching assistant stipend (for a 50% appointment) to $20,000 next year. This reflects an investment of $12 million in additional central campus funding. Another $16.7 million has come from grants, gifts and other school, college and departmental funding sources.

This has moved stipends for graduate assistants from among the lowest in the Big 10 conference to above the median of AAU institutions. In fact, just this year we increased graduate student stipends by nearly 9% – and that was on top of a 13.3% increase the year before.

It’s important to note that graduate student employees, who are students first and foremost, also receive tuition remission valued at $15,000 and benefits like health insurance.

The Graduate School also has been working to make sure that incoming graduate students are offered a minimum package of four years of support. At present, 76% of departments now offer these packages to some or all of their students, so that incoming students have guarantees of ongoing support for multiple years when they arrive. We expect that all departments will be doing this by the end of next year.

We’ve invested substantially in graduate students. And while we recognize the pressures students are under due to the rising costs of living, it is only equitable to balance our investments across the university.

That’s why we’re funding greater affordability for undergraduates through Bucky’s Tuition promise; it’s why we’re investing in additional faculty through Cluster Hiring and the Targets of Opportunity Program; and it’s why we’re putting more money into ensuring that our teaching and research spaces are safe and functional. All of these important university needs require funding. When we say that we aren’t able to go above what we’ve already invested for next year, it’s because we recognize that there are multiple groups on campus that need and deserve additional funding.

The current graduate student group also has asked for relief from mandatory fees, like an international student fee that supports international students, or student segregated fees, which have increased a relatively modest $75 over the last five years to $641.04 per semester.

Philosophically, we believe all students – graduate and undergraduate alike – must pay segregated fees to support high-quality services that are available to all students, such as access to University Health Services, the upkeep and support of the Wisconsin Union, rec sports facilities, stipends for child care, and other student services that are funded by these fees.

Allowing broad exemptions could ultimately undermine the funding model that provides valuable services to undergraduate and graduate students, enhances the UW-Madison student experience, and is endorsed by the student shared governance body.

Discussions about pay and benefits are always difficult. Faculty and staff at UW received no across-the-board increases for a four-year period – a period when we’ve made significant investments in graduate student pay. We’re proud of the increases we’ve prioritized for graduate students, but we know we must balance our investments across multiple needs on campus.