Grad Student Debt Rising

March 25, 2014; Michael Stratford
Published at Inside Higher Ed

The amount of debt that graduate and professional students are incurring to pay for their education has surged over the past several years, according to a New American Foundation report released today.

Analyzing federal data, the think tank found that the median overall indebtedness for a borrower who earned a graduate degree increased — in inflation-adjusted dollars — from $40,209 in 2004 to $57,600 in 2012. The figure includes loans from both undergraduate programs and graduate and professional degrees.

Much of that increase was fueled by students, across a broad range of disciplines, taking out more money to pay for their graduate education, according to the report, written by Jason Delisle, director of New America’s Federal Education Budget Project.


Letter to Members

Greetings Members of Graduate Assistants United!  The theme of the February issue of The Advocate is love (look out for a special edition of the Advocate on Feb. 14).  While an explicit mention of “love” is neither in our by-laws nor our Collective Bargaining Agreement with the University, I feel confident advancing the proposition that the idea of love pervades all of our work on campus.  From resolving disputes between Graduate Assistants and faculty-supervisors, to GAU Coffee Hours and Happy Hours, collective bargaining, educating GA’s about their rights in the workplace, etc., a spirit of love guides our work.  Thank you for being a part of our work.

I’m writing with a quick note to update members on a few developments with GAU:

  • We hit a mile marker with membership this year.  At last count we had 170 members of GAU!  With the total number of Graduate Assistants fluctuating at around 1,500, we’ve got some work to do to make our Bargaining Unit as strong as possible.  The more members we have, the stronger we are at the bargaining table.
  • Our Grievance Committee settled a Level 2 grievance with University Housing this spring.  We won back-pay for the grieving GA and some policy changes in their handbook.  The grievance centered on remedying requirements that regularly led our GA to work over 20 hours/week for his 50% contract.
  • We hosted PhD Movie and added value to the University in addition to our bread-and-butter issues of grievance resolution and collective bargaining.  With over 55 graduate students in attendance, our collaboration with the Graduate School was a resounding success.
  • GAU Organizer, Jessica Soester, joined the team this spring.  Jessica is on a 50% GA contract to conduct community organizing on campus, which includes hosting events, recruiting new members, and building our now 23-member Steward Council.  Welcome Jessica!
  • GAU is set to file an unfair labor practice lawsuit against the University for their arbitrary and unilateral violation of our Collective Bargaining Agreement (Article 5).  Working with our legal team at the Illinois Education Association (IEA), GAU is poised to take action in early February.
  • We will be holding our second General Membership Meeting of the year on February 19th.  As a result of member-feedback, we will be hosting 2 meetings (12noon-1pm, and 7-8pm) in the Missouri/Kaskaskia Rooms of the Student Center.  We look forward to seeing you at a meeting on the 19th!
  • We will be partnering with the IEA unions on campus (the Faculty Association, Non-Tenure Track Faculty Association, and Association of Civil Service Employees) for a bargaining season kick-off rally on March 19th.  Keep on the lookout for an announcement and flyer!

I hope this note finds you all well in the New Year, and off to a good start in spring semester.

If someone you know is interested in becoming a member of GAU, please let us know!  If you are interested in taking your membership to the next level by becoming a Steward or getting involved in our committee work, let us know!  Thank you everyone, very much, for your continued membership and participation in GAU.

Stay in touch!  With love,

Matt Ryg, President

General Membership Meeting Wednesday February 19!

Spring 2014 GMM posterMark your calendars for the 2nd annual GAU General Membership Meeting on Wednesday February 19. We have set aside two times to facilitate our member’s busy schedules so come out at either 12 – 1 pm or 7 – 8 pm in the Student Center Missouri/Kaskaskia Rooms. This meeting is free and open to the public. As the current GAU contract is running up and the time to Bargain is upon us, this is probably the most important meeting of the year to have your voices heard in a town hall format!

I look forward to seeing you there! Food will be served.

Also, the 2nd annual Steward Council will be meeting on Wednesday February 19 from 5:30 – 6:30 pm in the Student Center river rooms. This meeting is designed for current GAU Stewards, as well as for folks interested in becoming a Steward for their Department. We will be having informal discussion about what folks are seeing in their departments, particularly as it applies to our upcoming Bargaining events.

As always, let us know if you have any questions. We’d love to see you out!

Obama’s rankings won’t solve crisis in US academy

Published on 9/12/2013 in The Times Higher Education, by Rudy Fichtenbaum and Hank Reichman.

More government cash is the only way to cut student costs, argue Rudy Fichtenbaum and Hank Reichman.

In an attempt to rein in rising tuition fees and skyrocketing student debt, Barack Obama has announced a plan for performance-based higher education funding. Under his plan, colleges would be rated on affordability, graduation rates and graduate earnings.

To read more click here.

Interest rate policy change could increase student debt

By Matt Daray; Published in today’s Daily Egyptian. 9/11/2013

A new student loan law passed by Congress may hurt the very cause it was created to support – student pocketbooks. Congress capped the student loan interest rate at 3.9 percent for undergraduates this school year. Without the cap, rates could have … click here to read more.

Opportunity for Debate: The Case For Free Tuition

Against the Grain presents The Case For Free Tuition.

With college tuition’s rising, student debt soaring, corporate agendas dictating research, and academic job security under attack, what do we do about the multiple crises in higher ed? Robert Samuels proposes that we make public higher education free. He says it’s not only desirable but financially feasible.

Give it a listen.

Student Loan Rates

by James Anderson and Matt Ryg


As economic concerns mount for us all, recent legislative action gives us reason to pause, reflect and then act.

Many of you are well aware that Congress made crucial decisions about student loan interest rates this summer. They first failed to reach a deal on rates for federally subsidized student loans by the preferred date of July 1, resulting in what would have been a 6.8% interest rate increase.

With time to act before the rate went into effect, the Senate approved a bipartisan plan that tied the Stafford loan rates to financial markets, putting students in a precarious double bind. With substantial bipartisan support, the House followed suit, passing the legislation July 31.

Some celebrated this as working across party lines for the benefit of the public. As reported in the New York Times, Rep. Luke Messer (R-IN) called it “a great victory for taxpayers, because taxpayers won’t be forced to subsidize student loan rates that are arbitrarily set by politicians,” adding that it proves “Washington can work.”

Yet, we worry that while working for some, Washington is not working for too many people, especially students. The latest legislation regarding student loans provides a case in point. While the loan rates might not be “arbitrarily set by politicians,” they are now subject to the arbitrary whims of speculative financial markets.

We question whether it is truly “a great victory for taxpayers” because students and taxpayers are (or at some point will be) one and the same. And students will now be individually subsidizing payment for “public” education in order to get the degrees necessary to attain jobs that benefit the common good.

When politicians pass the legislation tying Stafford loan interest rates to financial markets, it forces students who take out loans to indirectly subsidize the “too big to fail” financial institutions that engaged in the risky behavior that helped produce the unfavorable economic situation today, which supposedly makes these budget-tightening policies necessary.

Rolling Stone reporter Matt Taibbi recently said that the costs of university education “have been rising at roughly three times the rate of inflation over the last couple of decades, three times the rate of the consumer price index,” and this rise in cost that primarily benefits administrators is being subsidized by student debt via government loans that will now indirectly subsidize speculative finance.

Jenna Johnson quoted Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) in the Washington Post after the bill first passed the Senate, pointing out that those in congress who supported the deal assume that lowering interest rates on loans this year is all that matters, which is “the same thing credit card companies said when they sold zero-interest credit cards, and it’s the same thing subprime mortgage lenders said when they sold teaser-rate mortgages.” Warren added: “In all these cases, the bill comes due.”

The senator had previously proposed students pay the same rates that big financial institutions get through the Federal Reserve discount window, an appreciably lower 0.75%. Just prior to the last compromise being reached in the Senate, Warren introduced an amendment with Sen. Jack Reed to keep interest rates where they are now. Sen. Bernie Sanders proposed authorizing new rates for only two years.

But the bipartisan opinion prevailed, prompting Warren to call the legislation “obscene,” since it forces students into the role of revenue generators for the government (and indirectly for the multinational corporate and financial institutions coercively pressuring politicians).

Sadly, students now appear caught in an inescapable double-bind.

Should the economy improve – and many students hope that it will so standards of living increase along with prospects for meaningful work – then the rates they pay on their loans will likely rise. True, the bill lowers interest rates temporarily, but those rate will be hiked in a few years.

Adding further irony and insult to the situation, if the rates do substantially increase as predicted, a large segment of the new workforce will have further reduced purchasing power.  That will likely hurt the overall economy down the road – and place disproportionate burden on indebted students and graduates.

Granted there was compromise, the consequences of which could have been far worse. The Senate deal capped loans at 8.25 percent for undergraduates, 9.5 for graduate students and 10.5 for parents and students with loans through the PLUS program.

But is this compromise problematic?

“The problem with the compromise that the Obama administration and the Republicans struck over student loan rates is that it compromises students,” Valerie Strauss wrote for the Washington Post, answering our rhetorical question and candidly summing up the situation.

Lest we forget, students – graduate students in particular – are already struggling. Accelerating trends in educational policy intensify that struggle.

Interest rates on student loans have nearly quadrupled in the last decade.  They now total about $1 trillion dollars, exceeding the sum of all credit card debt.

Equally troubling is the larger situation we find ourselves in as these policies take effect.

According to the Project for Student Debt report from The Institute for College Access & Success, college seniors had an average student loan debt of $26,000 in 2011. We suspect many graduate students owe much more.

Indeed, escalating costs of tuition and fees make it all but impossible not to accumulate debt.

The Institutional Research and Studies Factbook for Southern Illinois University Carbondale found that resident tuition for graduate students has more than doubled in the last ten years, rising from $4,296 in the 2003-04 academic year to $9,004.80 in 2012-13. Graduate student tuition has increased more than 2.5 times in that period, going from $1,270.30 to $3,352.68.

For graduate assistants, this is tantamount to paying employment fees to work at the university. Those employment fees are about two months pay for many of us. If you have a fifty percent fall and spring semester GA position only, approximately 20 percent of your pay goes back to the university in fees.

These higher costs of education have consequences. Increasing tuition and fees – together with exorbitant debt and potentially volatile loan interest rates – amount to a covert form of privatization that imperils people and public education writ large.

The process degrades education as a public good. Learning becomes commodified, turning a fundamental human right into a mere market-driven product exacerbated by the corporatization of higher education.

These practices work to sever social bonds and reinforce reductive, top-down business-model approaches to education that negates participatory decision-making. Top-down control, profit-oriented policy and questionable “less is more” approaches to education impede critical inquiry while impoverishing us intellectually and economically.

Undeniably, commitment to quality public education still pervades our campus. But, the “less is more” mentality applied disproportionately with respect to graduate students poses a serious problem.

If we truly value education in our democracy – and democracy in our education – then clearly student loan interest rates should not exceed the rates that the big banks largely responsible for the protracted financial crisis now pay, and they should not be attached to precarious markets.  Further, tuition for public education should be free for all, or at least it should be based on a student’s ability to pay. And for goodness sake, freeze the always increasing fees.

These are issues we care deeply about. We are also serious about trying to make education affordable. In the same vein, we want to make working conditions just, just as we assume all of you do. Please join us in working to create a better university right now while planting the seeds of a better world for the future.

In solidarity,

James Anderson, Steward
College of Mass Communication and Media Arts
Matt Ryg, GAU President
Department of Philosophy