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When Universities Shortchange Grad Students, Undergrads Suffer Too

A new report highlights gross inequities in health coverage for grad students—and a lack of access to mental-health resources more generally.
Professor teacher TA classroom graduate school

Graduate students are overworked, underpaid, put under enormous stresses, and too frequently denied support for various types of disability. Mental health among this population is a particular concern, as I covered at Pacific Standard earlier this year. Graduate students in all fields report much higher degrees of severe mental-health needs than the general population. Fixing this problem will require not just challenging academic ableism, but also fixing the basic conditions under which graduate students work and learn. We need to talk about labor, pay, health care, and food and housing security.

A working group of faculty and graduate students in the Graduate Organization of the Writing Program Administrators recently published a report on the labor conditions for graduate students who teach writing at colleges and universities in the United States. The results show widespread shortfalls in pay and benefits, as graduate work requirements commonly require students to do more work than they are paid for. As one participant in the survey puts it: "These assistantship programs are designed for healthy, young, single students. They are not appropriate for students with non-normative households, health issues, or a lack of familial support."

The working group surveyed 344 graduate student instructors from 37 universities. Instructors are typically contracted to work just 20 hours a week, because these are half-time positions intended to support students as they pursue their own studies.

Yet a full 62 percent of respondents reported working more than 20 hours a week on a regular basis. Thirty-six percent reported that their health insurance was inadequate, with almost half of that number reporting that their university offered no support in purchasing health insurance. Only 8.5 percent of all instructors report being offered the same health care as faculty and staff, while the rest were instead put on more limited student plans, which are often not sufficient to meet the needs of an older population (let alone students who are supporting families).

Instructors who reported mental-health needs found that available services were inconsistent or only supported short-term crisis response. Crisis intervention is important, of course, but doesn’t address chronic needs. One respondent wrote that campus mental-health care is "understaffed and only available for short-term care (there is a cap, for instance, on how many times you can visit a counselor/psychologist before being referred elsewhere)."

Ruth Osorio, one of the authors of the report and assistant professor of women's studies and rhetoric at Old Dominion University, tells me over email that, while she suspects the labor conditions among writing instructors are no worse than those of many other graduate assistants, "grad workers in writing programs ... tend to be instructors of record (rather than lab managers or discussion leaders or TAs). They are literally doing the work of faculty, but often without the protections or benefits." Osorio says she had a good experience in graduate school at the University of Maryland, one of the rare institutions that offers the same health-care benefits to graduate students as it does to faculty and staff.

"I had given birth to my first child. My prenatal care, labor, and delivery, as well as my newborn's health care," she says, "had been covered by my institution's health insurance."

At the same time, Osorio was watching the national news in 2015 when the University of Missouri announced abruptly that it was canceling all health-care benefits for graduate students (the university later reversed course).

"The University of Missouri kept insisting that they took away grad worker health care because federal law dictated that they couldn't offer grad workers specific health-care plans," Osorio says. "That's when I realized that grad workers need more data about these benefits: information about how other universities pay and provide health care can strengthen grad worker organizing."

Nearly 80 percent of the respondents to the WPA survey identify as white—a sign, Osorio says, of the "kinds of bodies academia prioritizes: non-disabled, cis-gender male, middle-class, white."

"How many disabled or sick scholars drop out of grad school or never even apply because they assume—rightfully so—that they won't have access to quality, affordable health care as grad workers?" she asks. "How can caregivers and parents pursue graduate degrees without dependent coverage?"

Health care is hardly the only material concern that can hold students back, or prevent them from entering graduate study in the first place, as Osorio notes. Basic needs like food and shelter matter too. “It's hard to focus in class when you're hungry or anxious or in pain or sick,” Osorio says. “The same is true, of course, for teachers."

Access to health care, and working only the hours for which one is paid, are both basic matters of labor justice. The contingent nature of writing instruction, however, may also be bad for pedagogy: John Warner, author of Why They Can't Write, recently told Pacific Standard that, under current conditions, too much of undergraduate writing instruction is shunted off to an overworked and underpaid contingent workforce. If writing is one of the skills that every college and university promises to teach, surely we should work to optimize the the conditions under which those skills are taught.

Over the last week, in part as a reaction to the tragic suicide of Princeton University economist and former White House official Alan Krueger, academe has once again been wrestling with the issue of mental health. In tributes and eulogies for Krueger, friends, colleagues, and former students emphasized his kindness in particular, and called for leaders in the academy to be more like him. Kindness is good, but reports like this one on labor conditions demonstrate the need to move beyond cultural change. We need to establish better material conditions for our graduate instructors—including less work, more pay, fewer classes, shorter assignments, and reliable benefits for all.