During the 2014-15 school year, the University of Chicago will collect a mandatory $1041 Student Life Fee from each of its graduate students, $347 per quarter. Since the 2009-10 academic year, that fee has increased by 45 percent. During that same period, graduate student instructor wages have increased 0 percent. This quarter, a graduate teaching assistant earning $3,000 will pay more than 10 percent of her pre-tax teaching wages back to her employer, the University of Chicago. On top of this cost, students are assessed a $100 penalty for failing to pay the Student Life Fee by its due date. What’s more, students who seek access to Student Health and Counseling Services during the Summer Quarter will be charged an additional $272 fee.
Where does the Student Life Fee go? We don’t really know, since our bills are not itemized. According to the Office of the Bursar, portions of the revenue are allocated to Student Health and Counseling Services, Student Activities, Campus Activities, and divisional programming, but more specific information is not readily available. We do know that we must pay the Student Life Fee in order to visit Student Health and Counseling Services, even though those of us on the University’s U-SHIP plan are also charged a $3,162 annual health insurance premium. Health care should be a benefit provided with fellowships and employment, not an additional expense, and the lines between health care costs, tuition, and other service costs must be sharply drawn.
The Student Life Fee is just one of many fees that add to the financial burden of attending graduate school and erode graduate students’ quality of life. Other hidden costs of graduate working life include printing fees, library fees, foreign language exam fees, the SEVIS fee paid by international students, transcript fees, and advanced-residency tuition (which can amount to $2,352 annually for students beyond their fifth year). National graduate-student debt is at a record high: among doctoral students in the United States, the average debt has risen 70% in the last decade. The debt burden for two-thirds of graduate students averages $60,000, and the unstable academic job market does little to ensure future financial security. Facing this economic reality, we simply cannot afford to pay these fees, especially the ever-increasing Student Life Fee.
We are graduate students, but we are also employees of the University of Chicago. Without the labor we provide as teachers and research assistants, the University would not function. Furthermore, we produce additional value for the University every day by conducting our own research, publishing papers, organizing conferences, and editing journals. We deserve fair compensation, and we deserve not to pay any portion of that compensation back to our employer. With this petition, Graduate Students United demands that the University of Chicago abolish the Student Life Fee for all graduate students and join us in a productive dialogue about other fees and costs of graduate working life.