March 23, 2023

GUEST ROOM | Eight Percent Is Not Enough

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On Feb. 6, 2023, Dean Boor announced an eight percent stipend increase for Cornell graduate students. According to Boor’s announcement, this stipend adjustment, which will increase 12-month assistantships to $43,326 for the 2023-2024 academic year, is the largest stipend increase graduate workers have received since 2006. At first, my colleagues and I were excited about the news. But after talking through how the eight percent stipend increase would impact our finances, we found that this raise barely accounts for the rising cost of living in Ithaca. For those of us on nine-month assistantships, the situation is even more dire: The raise brings our salaries to $39,340 — less than a thousand dollars above the living wage as of 2021 for a single adult in Tompkins County. When my colleagues and I considered rising rent prices and factored in the additional services we pay for out-of-pocket — from bus passes and parking to vision and dental insurance to dependents on our health insurance — many of us realized that, even with the raise, we will still struggle to make ends meet next year.

My instinct is always gratitude. I knew I was supposed to feel grateful for this stipend adjustment even after I crunched the numbers, as though my financial difficulties — being in debt and having medical bills, for example — are the exception to the graduate student norm. They aren’t the exception, though. Countless graduate workers face similar challenges: repaying undergraduate loans, managing medical issues and supporting families are experiences we share. And, like me, many of my peers see their situations as somehow exceptional, as individual challenges and even failings that other graduate workers don’t face. But these situations are not exceptions to the graduate worker experience; they are a central part of it. A fair wage would mean being paid enough that common experiences like dealing with health issues, traveling to see family or repaying loans do not leave us in housing precarity or deplete our bank accounts every month.

We could spend hours working out the details of different graduate students’ situations and how they fit into Cornell’s recent policy adjustments around pay. But I would encourage my peers not to fall into that trap and instead ask themselves: Am I being paid enough? Is an institution with an $11 billion endowment paying me a fair wage if I still can’t save up for emergencies? As graduate workers, we’re in different funding situations and we do different types of work, and Cornell’s eight percent stipend adjustment affects us all in different ways. But these details and differences must not distract from the heart of the issue: Graduate students are still not paid fairly. 

On Nov. 11, 2022, hundreds of graduate workers brought together by Cornell Graduate Students United gathered outside Day Hall to ask Cornell to do better by paying us a fair wage. In the rain, graduate workers from across the University shared personal testimonies of their struggles to make ends meet on Cornell’s graduate stipends. With stagnating wages in the face of historic inflation and 12.3 percent rent hikes in Tompkins County, many of us have been priced out of Ithaca apartments, gone into debt, borrowed money from relatives and picked up side gigs that we’ve balanced with the benchmarks of our graduate programs. These issues have not only been detrimental to our own well-being and security — they have also held us back from being the best possible teachers and researchers we came here to be. 

I was one of the graduate workers who shared their testimonies at the November rally. As an international student, I arrived at Cornell feeling grateful for the academic opportunities and financial support I was offered. When an unexpected medical issue sent me into credit card debt in the second semester of my Ph.D., I blamed myself for not budgeting well enough to save up for emergencies. A few months later, when I picked up an additional on-campus job and opted to stay in Ithaca over the summer to save money, I felt ashamed and isolated. But through conversations with other graduate students who have accrued debt and struggled to return home over breaks, I’ve come to see that these experiences are far from unique. They stem from our wages not keeping up with the cost of living in Ithaca, not from our personal shortcomings.

To me, a fair wage would be one that predictably keeps up with inflation and rising costs of living. Being paid fairly would mean not being rent-burdened — that is, not paying over 30 percent of my income in housing, as I and many of my peers still do. It would mean receiving full coverage for expenses that are essential for me and other graduate workers to live and work well: annual bus passes, on-campus parking, vision and dental insurance, gym services, international student visa fees and health insurance for spouses and dependents. It would mean making enough to afford travel to visit our families. And it would mean being able to save enough to cover unexpected expenses that are bound to come up over the five or more years of a Ph.D. program. In short, it would mean not having to spend our entire graduate careers in survival mode. For me, this would mean being able to save enough to know that another medical issue will not send me back into debt.

By these metrics, the eight percent raise is not enough. Cornell’s raise announcement is a step in the right direction, but we are still a ways away from being paid fairly. If we truly are the “fundamental part of the intellectual life of Cornell” that President Pollack says we are, we deserve salaries that reflect our value. 

Ewa Nizalowska is a Ph.D. student in the Government department at Cornell. Comments can be sent to [email protected]. Ewa can be reached at [email protected]. Guest Room runs periodically this semester.