We, the FAU Starving Grads, are writing to you today to address several grievances that are held by a significant portion of the graduate students, Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTAs), and Graduate Research Assistants (GRAs) at Florida Atlantic University (FAU). Before we expand upon our position, we should preface that we bear no ill will towards FAU as an institution and we have no intention of using extraordinary means to articulate our interests besides the diplomatic channels that we are establishing in this document. As the pinnacle of the FAU student body and graduate employees at FAU, we are intimately aware of FAU’s Mission Statement and its vision to become an internationally respected teaching and research university.
As a collective, however, we feel that the current status of graduate students is hindering FAU’s goals and aspirations. Financial insecurity is central to this paradigm. While there have been significant gains in promoting undergraduate research, particularly in the FAU Pillars and Platforms initiative, FAU’s graduate students are woefully neglected considering they conduct a large portion of the University’s research and instruction. Therefore, if FAU seeks to become an internationally respected teaching and research university, the status of graduate students must significantly change. By making these changes, we feel that it will increase recruitment from both prospective graduate students and current FAU undergraduates to apply for GTA and GRA positions. It is our hope that after engaging with you and all other necessary parties, that all GTAs and GRAs will be rewarded with:
1. Stipends for Ph.D. students increased to $30,000 and stipends for Masters students increased to $15,000 annually.
2. A waiver for FAU Health Insurance.
3. A waiver for Student Fees.
4. Add subsidized housing for graduate students.
5. More accurate representation for graduate student interests at FAU.
6. Written agreement that these financial issues will be readdressed every 5 years.
7. A Union building for graduate students to meet/discuss/work.
8. Increase student travel funding budget by 25% to $100,000 and provide a more efficient and direct distribution of funds throughout the academic year.
It is demonstrably clear that FAU has succeeded in its mission statement in becoming one of the most diverse academic institutions in the United States. A cursory examination of the graduate students involved in this initiative will prove that. We are concerned graduate students who have formed an alliance, all from myriad and distinctive intellectual and cultural backgrounds. Despite this commitment, FAU has regrettably fallen short in adequately fostering and facilitating its vision and values. Academic institutions are not only anchored in the professors who are actively engaged in research, but also in the graduate students who contribute to that process as well. The current stipends for graduate students are barely sufficient in maintaining an equitable standard of living in Boca Raton and its surrounding areas. As it is, what incentive is there for potential graduate students to come to FAU and produce research that could bolster support for both the University and the students? Despite the fact that FAU is an excellent school that is producing cutting-edge research, many prospective graduate students opt out of attending because the stipends are simply not competitive enough, especially in comparison with other state schools.
This paradigm falls under considerable scrutiny when one considers it in relation to one of FAU’s key values: supporting all those who rely on the University, such as families, employers of students and graduates, and community partners.1 All of FAU’s graduate students, and especially those who maintain GTA and GRA positions, rely on the University as a source of income, particularly those who are international students and/or those who have families to support. Unfortunately, we are not provided adequate support by our University. If FAU intends to be an engine for economic growth, as stated in the University Values2, how are GTAs and GRAs living in relative poverty supposed to contribute to this engine? We are not asking for exorbitant wages or benefits. We are simply asking for compensation for our work relative to Boca Raton’s cost of living, and to receive insurance benefits that are a staple of every academic institution in the state of Florida.
The following document represents a proposal to the FAU administration and all necessary parties based on data in multiple sources, including but not limited to national news reports and research polls, and the National Center for Education Research and Statistics. This data shows the standard expenditures for the minimum expected quality of life for GTAs and GRAs at FAU. The data presented also takes into consideration the increases in the Consumer Price Index (CPI), as well as additional expenses that FAU GTAs and GRAs normally accumulate. This document is a guideline for the FAU administration and all necessary parties to understand how the lack of stipend increases impact the lives of graduate students. FAU’s graduate students have not had a stipend increase in the last ten (and in some cases more) years. This issue directly affects the standard of living for FAU’s GTAs and GRAs and makes living in Boca Raton financially impossible.
It is also important to note that while domestic graduate students often resort to working additional jobs such as teaching, tutoring, or other jobs outside of their area of expertise completely, international students are not provided the same privilege. Due to federal regulations, international students are forbidden to work outside of their stipend in any capacity, often forcing these students to max out credit cards and live in overcrowded or unsuitable residences. Both of these issues result an increase in stress levels, an increase in debt upon graduation, a potential decrease in retention to graduation, and a reduction in time and concentration for coursework and research.3
It is also important to note that while our focus is on Boca Raton, we recognize that graduate students live, work, take classes, research and teach on the satellite campuses as well, including: Davie, Jupiter and Fort Pierce. It is clear all FAU graduate students have similar (if not identical) costs and therefore we have outlined the most serious concerns below.
The most basic and unavoidable needs of GTAs include: rent, utilities, insurance (health insurance at the most basic or car insurance as applicable), food, transportation, and course registration. Based on these minimum requirements, we have estimated a minimum student budget for the fiscal year 2016-2017.
According to FAU’s Financial Aid website, the monthly budget for GTAs/GRAs taking 24 credits per year (9 Spring, 6 Summer and 9 Fall) is listed below. Unchangeable fees such as the Transportation Access Fee and the A&S fees per credit hour are included. All additional numbers scale to reflect a month-to-month budget. This budget estimate does not include health insurance or any out of pocket expenses for travel such as conferences or field research.4
Since the last major increase in stipends in 2006, rent has increased an accumulated 25% in Florida.5
These numbers reflect the financial state of students as a whole. These numbers, however, fail to take into account that the cost of living in Boca Raton is not only more expensive than the national or state median, but that it also has increased the cost of rent at a much faster pace than the average in the State of Florida. According to Rent Jungle, a leading online search engine for rent prices, Boca Raton has increased its rents by more than 33%.6 Considering Boca Raton’s growth (8.2% since 2010 and 22% since 2000)7and the growth of tourism it is not hard to see these numbers to be a fair assessment.8
While we do acknowledge a vehicle is not a necessity, FAU does boast about its satellite campuses that often require additional transportation, thus making transportation an important issue. Many students travel not only back and forth between campuses, but also travel to meet basic needs. Students should not be expected to forgo car insurance or purchase a motorcycle to avoid these fees. While public transportation (buses9 and trains10) and bicycles are cheaper alternatives, students should not be expected to make the extra commute to avoid these fees.
Since the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010, all domestic and international students are required to purchase health insurance. Health insurance is not only a legal requirement and a safety necessity for several GTAs and GRAs, it is also a liability for the University. Many of FAU’s graduate students are involved in Chemical and Marine Biology labs where they are exposed to hazardous materials, both in teaching and in research. Currently, FAU does not offer compensated insurance options, particularly for GTAs and GRAs who are in these dangerous situations. This issue places the onus on the students to find individual healthcare plans on the market that are often expensive and unspecific to their occupation. The insurance plan that FAU offers its students through Aetna Life Insurance Company (ALIC) charges $1448 for international students and $2960 for domestic students. This cost represents a significant hit to our stipends and thus makes it unaffordable.11
Graduate Student Travel
Among other concerns that the graduate students have, is the fact that the University has not increased the amount of money allotted for graduate students to travel to conferences to present research and promote FAU’s research initiatives to meet the student’s demands.
Not only is traveling to conferences important to the students to gain exposure and to propagate their research, it also benefits the University for the same reasons. The techniques learned and contacts made by students at conferences are invaluable and necessary for obtaining employment after graduation. Since the budget for such expenses has not increased with the graduate student population, FAU is sending a smaller and smaller percentage of students to conferences and thereby limiting its own exposure as a quality higher education and research institute. Covering such costs for these quite standard graduate student trips is clearly damaging to the budget of the student. In fact, we are aware the Graduate and Professional Student Association (GPSA) had to fight just to keep the travel funding for the fiscal year 2016-2017 the same as it was from the fiscal year 2015-2016 and not letting it decrease. Due to the stagnant travel funding budget and the increasing FAU graduate population, students who recognize the immense benefits of conferences are forced to reach deeply into their own pockets to attend conferences.
Research shows that the average price of an airplane ticket as increase 23%12 and the average price of a hotel room has increase 35% over the last 10 years.13
Understandably, as the FAU graduate population increases, the number of students traveling to conferences also increases as well. Travel funding has not been increased proportionately, and more students must pay for conference expenses out-of-pocket. In many circumstances, students must forego attendance or presenting at these integral conferences; in addition to the added stress and lost opportunity for the student, FAU also loses the potential research connections with other institutions.
FAU Operating Budget
We are aware FAU has not been immune to the recent economic crises to hit America, but FAU has seen an increase a budget increase over 9 of the past 10 fiscal years.14
These budget increases have been greater than inflation in the U.S. in all years except for the 2014-2015 fiscal year. FAU’s operating budget has accumulated an increase of 92% over the last 10 years. Inflation in the U.S. has increased 28% over the same period of time.15
Comparison with other Florida state schools
FAU has been tied for first in the 2016 Performance Funding Model metrics in comparison with the other 10 state schools on the list (FAMU, FGCU, FIU, FSU, NCF, UCF, UF, UNF, USF, UWF). If FAU desires to maintain this status, it is imperative to become more competitive with other institutions, which are able to recruit quality students with more funding prospects and benefits. We present not only the stipend amounts at these universities and benefits of students, but also the cost of living for each region.
Cost of Living
According to the Florida Department of Education, the Price Level Index16 of Palm Beach County (with each comparison done by county) is not only higher than all other nine counties hosting a state university in Florida, but is also the highest in the state.
These numbers are also substantiated by CNN’s Cost of Living Calculator, showing Southeastern Florida is the most expensive area of Florida to live. 17
When examining the average cost of a two bedroom apartment for the city of each of these universities also shows that Boca Raton has the most expensive average cost for apartments at $1272, which is $250 more than the average of these 11 Universities.18 According to Rent Jungle, these numbers have increased dramatically for Boca Raton over the last two years. 19
The same website shows that Boca Raton is also the most expensive in regards to grocery costs and miscellaneous, and the second most expensive in health care.
While health insurance is a requirement for all international graduate students on a GTA/GRA position, it is also necessary for many graduate students working in labs around chemicals or doing field research. Since the Affordable Care Act, if students choose not to have insurance they will have to pay a fine, making every GTA/GRA pay in some way. FAU is the largest University in the Florida College System (total students and graduate students) that does not offer any support of health insurance for GTAs/GRAs.
The graph below depicts stipends nationwide from over 160 universities nationwide.27 The trend line shows the national average stipend of these universities to be $27,525, well above the stipends at FAU. The data does not show, however, that many of these universities also offer healthcare, cover fees and offer other subsidies that FAU does not.
When we compare FAU’s stipend to the national averages, we see that FAU is closer to the national minimum than it is to the national average. Also, while FAU is below the national average by numbers alone, this fails to take into account that FAU does not pay any of the student fees, offer insurance coverage or additional benefits such as reduced priced graduate student housing that many of the other universities on the list do, making the numbers even further apart than they appear.
Comparing all the numbers presented before you, it is clear that FAU’s stipend rates are now not only not comparable to other schools, it is practically impossible to maintain a suitable standard of living with them. We need to rectify the situation so that FAU maintains its promises to its students, but also to continue performing at a level that does keep it competitive with other universities.
As of Fall 2014, FAU had approximately 1000 registered graduate students and of those, 792 were GAs (672 instructional, 120 research) putting the ratio of instructional graduate assistants to faculty at about 1:2.28 We are aware that FAU has been looking into this issue for some time, but as nothing has come of it, we as GTAs/GRAs are no longer willing to wait. As you see below we have petitioned GTAs/GRAs across the campuses and even collected their own stories of how this issue has affected them financially, emotionally, spiritually and physically.
Given that some stipends have not been increased in 10 years and others in over 20, our recommendation is to normalize stipends across the University with the following suggestions:
1. Stipends for Ph.D. students increased to $30,000 and stipends for Masters students increased to $15,000 annually.
We have calculated that the current Ph.D. and Master’s GTA/GRA have a monthly deficit of at least $450 and $1000 respectively. This is a problem particularly because students are contractually obligated to work ONLY for the University as students who attempt to supplement their income are vulnerable to disciplinary action. To remove this burden from students and to make FAU a competitive choice for the next five years, we suggest the increase above.
2. FAU’s health insurance policy should be included in the stipend with all fees waived.
Due to increases in Healthcare Premiums in the Affordable Care Act, myriad graduate students have forgone purchasing health insurance because they are unable to afford it. While there are student insurance plans at FAU, these plans cost $1448 and $2960 annually for international and domestic students respectively. As a result, these plans are unaffordable to the majority of the graduate students. This would also remove any liability from FAU in the event of unforeseen circumstances.
3. Student fees should be waived.
Full time graduate students are required to pay an average of $681.89 for in-state students and $962.60 for out-of state students, per semester in fees. These costs represent a significant hit to our stipends. Per our calculations, it can be seen that graduate students pay anywhere from 8.5% (Ph.D. candidates) to 17% (MA students) of their stipends back to the school in fees alone.
4. Add subsidized housing for graduate students.
Many universities offer subsidized house for the graduate students or GTAs/GRAs. The lower than market rents and proximity to campus combined with a graduate student friendly community not only make it a relaxed atmosphere for graduate students to network, it also keeps students close to campus and close to their work while still giving them the ability to go home whenever they need. Graduate students with families could truly benefit from this as well. Many universities use these subsidies to reduce the financial burden placed on graduate students.
5. More accurate representation for graduate student interests at FAU.
Student Government is designed to look after the needs of all students. However, it is almost solely comprised of undergraduates. Graduate students do want a say and a voice, but are not willing to spend the money and resources to compete against undergrads with more resources and more time for positions and thus many needs of graduate students go unaddressed for years at a time. As graduate students, our main avenue for support comes through GPSA. Our suggestion is to first, reallocate a Graduate Assistantship within GPSA to make part of their duties to be a voting member of the University-Wide Budget Appropriations Committee (UBAC) listed under section 207.200 of the Student Government Study Body Statutes. Secondly we ask that the University work with the Colleges to increase incentives for graduate students to volunteer for these representative positions posted by and within GPSA to a point where the student sees a direct benefit including, but not limited to, decreased duties within the College, monetary incentives or other incentives the College can work out. Lastly we ask that these students along with the voting graduate student member of UBAC have the opportunity to address future graduate student concerns at these meetings.
6. A union on campus for graduate students to meet, hold meetings and study.
GTAs/GRAs are often given a table top in a crowded laboratory or small desk in a room filled with 10 or more other graduate students as “their space” if they are given their own “space” at all. Many of these locations are also where GTAs are required to hold office hours for the courses they teach. This type of environment is not always conducive to the collaboration or concentration needed to do hours of tedious work or even a discussion about a current project. While the library offers some “quiet” areas these are not ideal to the needs of graduate students as well as not open 24 hours a day. Our request for a union, or building specifically designed for graduate students to meet, study, communicate and discuss ideas and even to relax is fair considering many graduate students spend 6-10 hours a day on campus. This would allow a location on campus for students to meet, keep them on campus and able to continue their work as long as they need; thereby increasing productivity and results.
7. Increase the graduate student travel funding budget by 25% to $100,000 and provide a more efficient and direct distribution of funds throughout the academic year.
While we are aware that Student Government and GPSA define their regulations according to the disbursement of travel funds, the fact that these funds are depleted quickly and most Colleges and Departments also struggle to help fund students research travel is a major concern. While some of this may be able to be solved by a more streamlined process, we still feel the school should allocate additional funds to GPSA as well as the Colleges and Departments themselves to help fund such expenditures.
8. Written agreement that stipend benefits will be readdressed every 5 fiscal years.
Since stipend issues have not been addressed in most cases in as long as 10 years and even in 20 years in some case, we ask the University to put a policy in place requiring the GTA/GRA stipend issue to be readdressed at least every 5 years. Graduate students should be allowed to address issues and concerns as often as are needed but we are requesting a formal re-evaluation of the graduate student stipend and its accompanying benefits by the University at least every five years, with a written report of its findings released to the graduate student population.
Not only are these benefits something the students should already be receiving, they will also increase student morale and satisfaction with the University as a whole, decrease outside duties of students (resulting in an overall better experience and increased and quicker graduation rates) as well as attract a stronger graduate student pool in all graduate programs FAU offers and wants to excel in, thus all around benefiting FAU.
We are also understanding of FAU’s need to discuss these issues amongst themselves but in this proposal we are requesting to not only be heard in person before June 30, 2016 but also are expecting an offer that we find suitable before this date as well. To show we are not alone on these issues we are attaching our online petition as well as personal letters of student grievances with the issues stated above.
1 FAU Mission Statement, https://www.fau.edu/iea/factbook/mission12.pdf.
2 FAU University Values, https://www.fau.edu/iea/factbook/mission12.pdf.
3 “How Much Outstanding Student Loan Debit is from Graduate Students? More than you think,” U.S News & World Report.http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2014/03/25/how-much-outstanding-loan-debt-is-from-grad-students-more-than-you-think
4 “Cost of Attendance,” FAU Financial Aid. http://www.fau.edu/finaid/other/cost-of-attendance.php
5 “Florida Residential Rent Statistics,” Department of Numbers. http://www.deptofnumbers.com/rent/florida/
7 U.S. Census Bureau. http://www.census.gov/prod/www/decennial.html
8 “South Florida Tourism Looks Bright in 2014,” Sun Sentinel http://articles.sun-sentinel.com/2014-01-02/news/fl-tourism-hotels-outlook-2014-20131225_1_hotel-occupancy-jorge-pesquera-tourism-bureau
9 “Bus Service Fixed Route,” Palm Tran http://www.co.palm-beach.fl.us/palmtran/bus/
10 Tri-Rail. http://www.tri-rail.com/
11 FAU Student Health Insurance Plan. http://www.fau.edu/shs/fees_insurance/student_insurance.php
12 “Annual U.S. Domestic Average Itinerary Fare in Current and Constant Dollars, Bureau of Transportation Statistics, http://www.rita.dot.gov/bts/airfares/programs/economics_and_finance/air_travel_price_index/html/AnnualFares.html
13 “Average daily rate of hotels in the United States from 2001 to 2015 (in U.S. dollars), Statista: The Statistics Portal, http://www.rita.dot.gov/bts/airfares/programs/economics_and_finance/air_travel_price_index/html/AnnualFares.html
14 Operating Budget, Florida Atlantic University http://www.fau.edu/budget/budgets.php
15 “Consumer Price Index,” United States Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, http://www.usinflationcalculator.com/inflation/consumer-price-index-and-annual-percent-changes-from-1913-to-2008/
16 2015 Florida Price Level Index. http://www.fldoe.org/finance/fl-edu-finance-program-fefp/index.stml
17 “Cost of Living: How far will my salary go in another city?” CNN Money. http://www.fldoe.org/finance/fl-edu-finance-program-fefp/index.stml
18 “Boca Raton, Florida,” Sperling’s Best Places. http://www.bestplaces.net/housing/city/florida/boca_raton
20 “Frequently Asked Medical Insurance Questions,” FAMU Graduate Studies and Research. http://www.famu.edu/graduatestudies/Frequently%20Asked%20Questions_Insurance_11%2019%202014.pdf
21 “Graduate Assistantship Information,” FAU Graduate College. http://www.fau.edu/graduate/tuition-benefits/
22 “2015-2016 Graduate Assistantship Program Summary Chart,” FIU Graduate School. https://gradschool.fiu.edu/documents/ga-summary-chart.pdf
23 “Subsidy Benefit,” FSU Graduate College. http://gradschool.fsu.edu/Funding-Awards/Subsidy-Benefit
24 “Assistantships,” UCF College of Graduate Studies. https://funding.graduate.ucf.edu/assistantships/
25 “GatorGradCare,” UF Human Resource Services. http://hr.ufl.edu/benefits/health-insurance/gatorgradcare/
26 “Frequently Asked Questions for GA Subsidy,” USF Division of Human Resources. http://usfweb2.usf.edu/human-resources/pdfs/benefits/FAQs-GA-webpage.pdf
27 PhD Stipends. http://www.phdstipends.com/results
28 “Florida Atlantic University,” National Center for Educational Statistics. http://nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator/?id=133669