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How I Spent My Stipend

Guest Column
Jennifer Farver

Last spring, MIT announced significant stipend increases for graduate research assistants and teaching assistants (as much as 15.4 percent for some graduate students). In light of the recently announced “activities fee,” which promises to be yet another means to divert my paycheck back to the Institute, I would like to report on how I spent my stipend increase.

This year, as a doctoral-level Research Assistant in the School of Engineering, I received a 7.8 percent stipend increase, equating to $130 per month. The federal and state government relieved me of some of this increase (about $26); through rent and health insurance, MIT relieved me of most of the rest.

I consider myself fortunate to live on campus at Ashdown House. Still, my rent there has been steadily climbing over the past several years. Two years ago, MIT announced three years of subsequent 5 percent increases in on-campus graduate student rents. This costs me an extra $25 per month as compared with last year and will cost me at least another $25 per month next year. Worse still, there are indications that in this, the third year of rent increases, the rents will climb by up to 7 percent instead of the promised 5 percent. If I lived at a more costly residence, such as The Warehouse, this increase would cost me roughly $50 more per month.

Looking at my health insurance bills I note several increases. First, I notice that this year my MIT health insurance costs me $6 per month more than it did last year. And since I started at MIT, the co-payment for prescriptions has increased from $6 to $10. Small potatoes perhaps, but it starts to add up. Many of MIT’s peer institutions include health coverage in graduate student tuition awards. Others include a dental plan. MIT does neither. In fact, MIT does not even provide an option to purchase dental coverage.

In summary, I think the net benefit to me of my stipend increase is about $1 per day. That’s about one-third of the cost of a beverage at Tosci’s or one-fifth of the cost of a lunch at Lobdell.

I’d also like to note that my case is not an extreme example. Due to the shortage of graduate student housing on campus, many grads must pay high rents in the Boston area. If they are lucky (or wealthy) enough to live close to the T, they can count on buying a pass for up to $30 per month. Otherwise, they must figure out how to pay for gas, parking, car ownership and car insurance on their stipend. Masters students get paid less. Some graduate students are only partially funded or not funded at all. International students often have visa restrictions which limit their and their partners’ earning power. There are certainly grad students on campus who are worse off than they were one year ago.

Given all these MIT-related fee increases, there’s really not much left to account for general cost-of-living increases and when MIT proposes a $200 activity fee for all students, grad or undergrad, off-campus or on, I’m less than thrilled. Especially given that the possible benefit to the average grad student for such a fee is probably less than that for an undergraduate.

According to the article in Tuesday’s Tech [“MIT Announces Tuition Hike, Required Student Activity Fee,” Feb. 19], the fee would help finance the new sports center. More than 60 percent of graduate students live off campus, and do not find the on-campus sports center convenient to use. Furthermore, few graduate students compete on intercollegiate athletic teams. Given this, it seems unfair to burden graduates with this expense.

Tuesday’s Tech also mentioned that the fee would finance student activities. According to the Graduate Student Council, graduate student groups receive roughly 3.5 times less funding from the Institute than undergraduate student groups. Again, it seems unfair for graduate students to pay equally when we benefit less.

Most graduate students have awards which reimburse tuition fees; if this activities fee were included in the tuition award the impact on grad students would be lessened. Ideally, however, I would like to see the Institute find other ways to support these important elements of student life. To tout “community building” as a priority of the Institute and subsequently send students a bill for an “activities fee” is unfair to all students.

Jennifer Farver is a graduate student in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the president of Ashdown House.