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Expenses Difficult For Grads

By Gireeja Ranade

Despite efforts by the MIT administration to buffer the effects of a 60 percent health insurance hike and rising rents, graduate students continue to feel the pinch.

“Extra costs are all piling up,” said Stefan D’Heedene G. “My rent went up by about $50 per month. For my finances I felt it necessary to have a summer job and freelance after hours,” he said.

Graduate student rents increased by an average of 6 percent this year. However, rent for some apartments increased by much more because of a realignment in rent based on the quality of facilities. The realignment, while neutral overall, caused a sharp jump in rents in several dormitories.

“Food is really expensive,” said Anand Rajagopal G. Costs have “gotten a little bit better from last year, but it’s still very expensive ... Money which you could spend having fun and partying has gone down” compared to before, he said.

Moreover, in the current budget crunch at MIT, it looks like costs will only continue to rise compared to income.

“Given the financial situation MIT is in, I can’t expect that there will be any dramatic increases in stipend levels this year,” said Dean for Graduate Students Isaac M. Colbert. “We are looking at every aspect for how we can make it possible for students to live and survive at MIT,” he said.

MIT cannot do much for married graduate students, Colbert said, since stipend increases only cover the costs for the student, and not his or her family.

Health premium rise a surprise

Last year, “no one expected that the health insurance premium would increase as much as it did,” Colbert said.

He said that one critical factor in the rise in premiums was that MIT health insurance serves a relatively small population, as opposed to other heath insurance programs that serve tens of thousands of people, but still have a lot of the same fixed costs.

In addition, MIT Medical had been running a surplus in its budget for several years and five years ago decided to increase services. The surplus ran out last year during an unexpected increase in the usage of mental health services.

The actual increase in the health insurance premium was 70 percent, but the Institute has absorbed 10 percent of it, Colbert said.

The Medical Department is now involved in the process for setting stipend levels, and health insurance information will be taken into account, he said.

Students face several greater costs

Both graduate and undergraduate students have faced increasing costs recently with the imposition of a new student life fee on top of health insurance and rent costs.

D’Heedene said that the new $200 student life fee led to an additional burden on the students. Some graduate students feel that they are being made to pay for facilities that they do not use as much as undergraduates.

The fee was instituted last year in part to provide funding for the new Zesiger Center and in part as extra funding for the Student Life Office.

Colbert said that “it’s a question of who has access to [student life facilities]. Nothing stops a student from going over.” He said that statistics do not show that graduate students use the facilities and participate in student life programs less than undergraduates.

Rajagopal said that despite the increased costs, “the Z-Center has been great.”

Int’l students particularly hit

“Domestic students probably have a lot more options to pay. Rules are stricter for international students,” said Danielle Guichard-Ashbrook, director of the International Students Office. For instance, international students cannot increase their workload beyond 20 hours per week, and spouses of international students are not allowed to work.

“Immigration is not particularly sympathetic about health insurance,” Guichard-Ashbrook said, and work hour regulations would not change as a result of increases in health premiums.

She said that both domestic and international students are facing the consequences of the insurance hike, and although none of the students had complained to her particularly, she said she knew it was on their minds.

In addition, a new $100 fee may be levied on future incoming international students for the maintenance of the Student Exchange and Visitor Information System.

Stipend levels increase slightly

“Many departments increased stipend levels in response” to the increase in health insurance, Colbert said, in order “to help reduce the impact of the unexpectedly high premium increases.”

However, less than half the graduate students are supported as research assistants, about 850 as teaching assistants, and the rest are either supported by fellowships or pay their own way, Colbert said. The stipend increase would only affect RAs and TAs and thus not affect the overwhelming majority of students, he added.

Stipend levels are recommended to the Academic Council by a committee composed of the dean for graduate students, faculty from different schools, directors of major research laboratories on campus, graduate student representatives, and Associate Provost Alice P. Gast.

According to a June memo sent out by Colbert and Gast, the research assistant and teaching assistant stipend levels were increased by an additional $30 per month as a result of the health premium rise. The cost for Extended Health Insurance at MIT, however, is $45 a month, leaving a $15 gap each month.

Cost of living is only one part of the consideration in setting stipend levels. Another consideration is “what faculty believe the research accounts are able to bear,” Colbert said.

Currently, MIT graduate students are among the most expensive to maintain in the nation in terms of tuition and fixed costs.