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UA opts to raise teaching stipends

Grad students’ target not met by Jaime Adame | May 5, 2021 at 6:53 a.m.
University of Arkansas students are shown on the lawn in front of Old Main on the campus in Fayetteville in this file photo.

FAYETTEVILLE -- Minimum stipends paid to graduate assistants at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville will increase to $1,250 per month beginning in August, the university announced Tuesday.

The pay boost falls short of amounts called for by some students and faculty members. Cost of living concerns and pay at other universities have been cited as reasons to provide greater support for students who, as part of their assistantships, often teach college courses.

Increasing minimum pay for master's students to $11,250 over nine months and for doctoral or Master of Fine Arts students to $13,500 falls short of a push from some students to see minimum stipends rise to $20,000.

Last July, Mar Stratford, a creative writing Master of Fine Arts student, joined with 81 other graduate assistants in signing a letter addressed to Chancellor Joe Steinmetz calling for the $20,000 minimum stipend.

Stratford on Tuesday described having "mixed emotions" at the university's announcement.

"I know that for students who were previously getting $12,000 a year, this is going to make a big difference for them," Stratford said. "At the same time, I'm disappointed that the university thinks this is OK, that this is something that can be addressed incrementally, when student poverty is a crisis that needs an immediate solution."

An estimated 500 students across all academic departments will see stipend increases because of changes taking effect Aug. 16, said John Post, a UA spokesman.

The current UA stipend minimum is $1,043 per month for master's students, and the monthly minimum for Master of Fine Arts and doctoral students is rising to $1,500 per month from $1,159 per month.

The cost to raise the stipends adds up to $1 million, Post said.

The university announced that in the first year of the change, money for the pay increases will come from the budget of its central administration, but that there will then be a "gradual shifting of costs" to academic units.

Stipends vary widely by academic department, making comparisons difficult.

The new stipend minimums at UA remain below levels set at the University of Missouri, where the minimum is $15,000 for nine-month master's appointments and $18,000 for nine-month doctoral appointments, a spokesman said.

Elsewhere, the stipend floors are set lower. Auburn University has its minimum stipend for graduate assistants in 2020-21 set at $808 per month, a spokesman for the university said.

Post said that giving an accurate estimate for the average stipend paid to graduate assistants is difficult, but that a "ballpark" estimate is $14,000 for nine-month appointments and $17,000 for 12-month appointments.

The UA's faculty senate group in March approved a resolution calling for an increase in minimum graduate student pay.

Written by Michael Pierce, an associate professor of history who also serves as vice president for Local 965, a union for campus employees, the resolution called for a minimum monthly stipend of $2,225 per month for graduate assistants.

Stephen Caldwell, chairman of the UA faculty senate, said in an email Tuesday that "a step in the right direction, no matter how small, is always worth taking."

Caldwell added: "We look forward to working with administration to find ways to fund our graduate students at nationally leading levels so we can attract and retain the very best students here at the U of A."

The increase at UA comes at the recommendation of a university committee led by Patricia Koski, dean of the Graduate School and International Education, and Kim Needy, the previous graduate school dean and current dean of engineering.

JD DiLoreto-Hill, a doctoral student in public policy and student leader who served on the committee, said in a text message Tuesday that the new pay boost, "while acknowledged as not ideal, is a huge step in the right direction."

DiLoreto-Hill said the committee group included leaders from various campus units as well as some who work in university finance. He recently served as leader for the UA Graduate Professional-Student Congress, a group representing graduate students.

Katherine Dzurilla, a doctoral student in space and planetary sciences, is the current leader of the group.

She said "graduate students are not making enough right now."

But she said the university's administrators are receptive to having talks about graduate student pay.

Dzurilla called it a complex issue, in part because the funding sources for stipends may come from different parts of the university.

The student group last academic year formed a committee chaired by Dzurilla to study graduate student pay at UA compared with other institutions.

"Some schools we are right on par with, some we are a little bit below," she said.

Graduate student pay is a systemic issue that can't be solved by a single policy change, she added. But graduate assistants at UA and elsewhere serve in key roles, whether they are teaching introductory courses or helping out other parts of the university, she said.

"Graduate students play an integral part of university life. They help the university function, and I look forward to continuing these conversations," she said.

Stratford, who uses they/them pronouns, has seen the cost of living rise since moving to Fayetteville nearly four years ago, they said.

"I thought, OK, I'll have to get a job, but I can be frugal, I can make this work," Stratford said.

"What I have found is that over the past couple of years, even in the three years I've been here, I can see the housing market in Fayetteville is really changing.

Apartments could once be found for under $500, but "you can't find that anymore," said Stratford, who expects to finish Master of Fine Arts degree requirements in May 2022.

"I don't know that I would make the same decision if I was making it now," Stratford said about choosing the UA program. "I definitely underestimated how much financial stress I would be experiencing."

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