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Living Or Mere Survival?

Hugo M. Ayala

There is an old Latin proverb that says "living is not about surviving, but about having a life." With the recent elimination of dormitory space for graduate students, isn't the Institute asking graduate students to give up their life and just survive?

Some will argue that having peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for dinner, pirating software, and using milk crates for furniture is part of being a graduate student. But the situation has moved far beyond that. The recent announcement that undergraduates will displace Tang residents means more graduate students will be forced out into the Boston housing market, one of the priciest ones in the nation.

With the elimination of rent control in 1996, the already high housing prices have risen by an additional $200. This represents $400 more coming out of graduate student pockets, and that's just to pay the rent. In comparison, graduate student stipends have risen by only $60 in the same period.

The average graduate student stipend adds up to a little less than $17,900 a year. According to the financial aid office, the average cost of living off-campus, including rent and utilities, is about $835 a month. Throw in money for food, medical insurance, entertainment on weekends, books, travel, clothes, parking fees, gas, taxes, spending money, and you are left with a deficit of $500.

Sure, you can economize a bit, but is that having a life, or merely surviving? The recent announcement by the Graduate Education Office that graduate stipends will increase by $50 starting this summer is welcomed news, but the size of this raise demonstrates the ignorance on the administration's part towards our current situation. The number of graduate students who receive stipends and applied for financial aid has increased substantially in the last two years. This does not include Sloan, Architecture, and Urban Studies and Planning students, who do not receive tuition assistance and have to apply for financial aid anyway.

This sharp increase in the number of students asking for aid in addition to their stipend is indicative of the fact that the real cost of living is increasing at a pace far greater than the so called cost-of-living increases approved by the Institute every year. The most important step that the Institute can take towards improving the quality of life for graduate students is to seek the increase of graduate student stipends by $500 a month.

I know that I will probably will not get any sympathy from those graduate students who do not receive tuition assistance. What is a little loan when there are students who are up to their eyeballs in debt? The difference is that while students who do not receive tuition assistance are expected to find funding from various sources, we are expected to live on our stipend. Everything would have been fine if the cost of living had kept up with the increases to the stipend.

The administration is currently considering subsidizing the rent of first year students who are displaced from Tang. Why should only first-year students benefit from this? By my calculations, adding $6,000 to the paycheck of every salaried graduate student will cost about $10 million. Why not subsidize all of the graduate students who live off-campus? The cost of the subsidy could be made many times over by donations of alumni whose recollection of the Institute is not marred by memories of dire financial straits.

The problem is that this is not the case.

Higher stipends will make the housing near campus affordable, dinner something other than Ramen, and our lives something other than mere survival.