Graduate students are reviving calls for the University of Wisconsin-Madison to cover segregated and international student fees, saying the mandatory and continually increasing costs reduce their already low stipends by up to 10%.
Segregated fees are costs in addition to tuition that fund services including the Wisconsin Union, University Health Services, University Recreation & Wellbeing and transportation and childcare services. On March 15, the Teaching Assistants’ Association held a town hall where graduate students said they felt unsupported and like “just a number” to the university.
Fees totaled $734.30 per semester, or $1468.80 total, this year for both graduate and undergraduate students, marking a 14.5% increase over two years. International students pay about $100 more each semester, which TAA co-president Alejandra Canales called a “discriminatory burden.”
Fees are due April 2, but 865 graduate students have pledged to withhold their payments until at least that day. Associated Students of Madison, the student government body, introduced a resolution Tuesday in support of TAA’s demands for fee remission.
“The TAA has never advocated for the defunding of the various services that segregated or international student fees fund,” Canales said. “What we’re really saying is: Why does the university shift all of this financial burden on all of its students? It invariably hits people who are already feeling the most precarious.”
Other universities have announced fee remissions for graduate students in recent years, including a cancellation of all mandatory costs at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and the repeal of an international student technology fee at Northwestern University. TAA is appealing to faculty across departments for support and may bring the issue to the University Committee this semester in hopes of another Faculty Senate resolution, Canales said.
Both ASM and Faculty Senate passed resolutions in 2018 in support of graduate fee remission. Becky Rose, a PhD candidate in geography, said she hopes administration will be more open to policy changes this time around, after the COVID-19 pandemic placed even more financial stress on students.
“(The pandemic) has made so many things which people were kind of able to tolerate for a while just unbearable,” Rose said. “The university itself is suffering from these fees, because if you can’t afford to live here and eat and afford textbooks and conferences, you’re not going to be a good student, teacher or researcher.”
International students face additional challenges, including limited teaching appointments and eligibility for scholarships. They were also unable to receive federal stimulus checks during the pandemic.
Beyond the fees themselves, graduate students frequently criticize poor communication from the university, saying they were startled to see the fees directly taken out of their student accounts or paychecks.
Though undergraduate students also pay segregated fees, Jack Phillips, a PhD student in biomedical engineering, said graduate students are in a unique position where they have to “pay back our employer a hefty part of our income.” Phillips recalled budgeting their entire welcome grant for moving costs when first entering UW-Madison, only to learn later that they overspent hundreds of dollars on their credit card after accounting for segregated fees.
David Bates, a graduate student in political science, is making 10% less in income than he anticipated because of segregated fees. While struggling to choose the right dissertation topic, Bates said he found himself worried paying segregated fees without even making it to his dissertation on time: “It was obviously frustrating and stressful, but more importantly for me, it was unnecessarily so.”
“If I was getting paid even fewer pennies than we’re getting paid but got to keep that money, knew where it was coming from and knew how to budget for it, I would be much happier than with the system it is right now,” Bates said. “Make a system that doesn’t deal with one hand and take with the other because, in between it being given and it being taken, we need to pay for things.”