The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 42.0°F | A Few Clouds and Breezy

COLUMN

Supporting Graduate Student Health Care

Jamil R. Abo-Shaeer

Over the past few years the Institute has tightened its belt to compensate for the declining economy. Budgetary concerns affect everyone, from students to faculty to staff. Until the economy recovers we must all learn to make do with less, be that lab equipment, building maintenance and, in some cases, salary. Bearing this in mind, I am writing this letter to voice my community’s concern about the way that the Institute is treating its graduate students during these lean years.

Based on recent events, the general sentiment among graduate students is that the administration’s cutbacks disproportionately target those with the least. During the past two years we have seen a substantial decrease in our disposable income. This was mostly brought about by a 100 percent increase (60 percent this past March) in the cost of mandatory health insurance, the Student Life Fee, and escalating rent in both on- and off-campus housing. In addition to the skyrocketing cost of health insurance, we’ve seen a dramatic reduction in benefits. These include large cuts in OB-GYN services, reduction in mental health benefits, large co-payments for many medical procedures, and a 50 percent increase in prescription drug co-payments.

According to the Institute’s own cost of living analysis, the annual disposable income for graduate students has plummeted by over $3,000 during the last two years. Provost Brown has already stated that the cost of health care is expected to increase again next year, with graduate students likely to absorb the extra cost. It is unfair to so drastically reduce the level of support for students that came to MIT with the expectation that they will be able to meet their expenses over the next five to six years. The situation is especially grave for married and international students. Annual family health insurance costs several thousand dollars, and now far exceeds that of several of our peer institutions. Government grants and loans are unavailable to international students, who comprise nearly 40 percent of graduate student population.

It is ironic that the Institute’s treatment of its graduate students seems to run counter to recent actions taken by peer institutions (Harvard, Yale, Berkeley, Stanford, and Caltech), where steps have been taken toward improving the quality of life for graduate students. Examples include increased stipends (without additional fees or health care increase), fully subsidized medical and dental care, and housing subsidies. As a leader in education, we hope MIT will join its peer institutions by giving similar treatment to its graduate students. In failing to do so, the Institute will risk its status as a premier academic institution, since it depends so heavily on graduate students to conduct its research.

In light of these events, student groups have formed to lobby their department chairs to ease the burden of increased costs. Several departments have been receptive to the needs of their students, increasing student stipends significantly. Unfortunately, the departments can only partially offset the increase in the cost of living. It is clear that this is an Institute-wide problem and, therefore, it must be addressed at the Institute level. My hope is that recent cutbacks to our standard of living mostly result from our weak voice to the administration. If these disjointed student groups can unite under the umbrella of a common cause, we will be able to pressure the administration to address our concerns.

To this end, I ask you to join us in unifying the graduate student community behind the demand for subsidized health care. The cost of such a subsidy would constitute less than one percent of MIT’s annual budget. This is far less than the over-budget costs that MIT has paid for some its recent building projects. The impact on the MIT community, however, would be far more significant.

In addition to graduate students, we hope to gain the support of the entire MIT community, professors, undergraduates, and administrative staff. If you share our concern about graduate student life at MIT, we ask that you sign our online petition located at http://petition.mit.edu. At this site you will also find detailed information about the fight for parity with our peer institutions. Already, in our infancy, we have collected over 1,000 signatures.

For those of you interested in helping out, there are a number of things you can do. We ask that everyone signing the petition encourage his or her classmates, friends, and advisers to also sign. Discuss this matter with your departmental student organization (or organize a group if you don’t have one). Arrange to meet with your department chairs to let them know that the decline in quality of life is your major concern. You can also visit the site to download a poster for your office door or a paper petition to collect signatures. Finally, we can always use more help and we encourage you to join us at meetings. Please, let your voice be heard. Any questions, concerns, or to volunteer please e-mail petition@mit.edu.

Jamil R. Abo-Shaeer is a graduate student in the Department of Physics.