MSU Wild, Tuition Freeze

Students walk between classes on Thursday, Nov. 15, on the Montana State University campus.

A study released this spring shows that graduate teaching assistants make the least money in Montana. Heading into contract negotiation season, Montana State University graduate students are hoping to change that.

The study found TAs make an annual mean wage of about $18,850 a year, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. And as the cost of living increases in Bozeman, graduate students say that isn’t enough to get by.

“The cost of living in Bozeman isn’t going down,” said Kirke Elsass, event coordinator for the Graduate Employee Organization at MSU. “So there’s real stress.”

MSU graduate students formed a union in 2013 to increase wages and obtain better health insurance. Since then, the union has bargained for an extra $130 a month to help with living and health insurance costs, according to its collective bargaining agreement.

Still, that doesn’t come close to covering all the expenses of living in Bozeman, and many graduate students make less than $18,850 a year, Elsass said.

While the union can bargain for bare minimum requirements, wages and benefits vary from department to department. As a history Ph.D. student, Elsass has a $17,000 stipend, but he said about $4,000 of that goes toward health insurance he’s required to have. He gets about $1,690 a month for the 10-month school year, and he said he recently spoke with an education grad student who gets closer to $1,150.

He’s able to swing it because he didn’t go into graduate school right after getting his undergraduate degree, which allowed him to save some money. He also lives with his wife and had some savings from a house he sold before going to school. Even then, everything doesn’t always add up, he said.

Other graduate students usually need some support from family, take out loans or have to take on extra work, which is discouraged by professors. And many struggle to pay bills in the summer, a time when they usually don’t receive money from stipends.

He also said he thinks the graduate students at MSU right now are skewed toward those who have the means to make it work, and the school has lost some good potential degree candidates who can’t afford to live on such a tight budget and get better offers from other universities.

Though many wages and benefits are set by individual departments, the graduate student union can negotiate with the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education for some things.

In bargaining, it has faced some challenges, though. For one, the union faces high turnover, with students graduating every year. Out of about 1,800 graduate students, Elsass estimates there are around 700 graduate student employees at MSU, and of those, he said fewer than 250 belong to the union, even though non-union members benefit from negotiations.

Sometimes, getting people to join is just a matter of having them fill out a form and pay union dues, which he said are about $130 a year. Part of joining is an act of altruism, he said, as students are paying to help attain better wages and benefits they may not see before they graduate.

“The union has to be something that you’re doing to pay it forward,” he said. “Because there’s only so much that will change over the course of your two to six years of your own grad program.”

Graduate students will begin negotiations with university officials this August. As it stands, graduate students who are compensated for about 19 hours a week must receive a minimum of $3,250 a semester, said Kevin McRae, a spokesperson for OCHE.

McRae said he didn’t want to discount the importance of graduate TAs’ and research assistants’ work. Regarding the BLS study, though, he said he thought comparing their jobs to other ones, like a water meter reader, might be “comparing apples and oranges.”

“We’re talking about students, and these duties and responsibilities are a significant part of their academic progress toward their graduate degrees, which in many or most cases, is the education of future faculty members,” he said.

He also said Montana offers cheaper tuition than most other states, on a national level.

“A low tuition state is going to look low-paying in a national study,” he said.

Jesse Peach, president of the GEO, said the students all have graduated with degrees and are skilled workers, and most end up working more than 19 hours a week.

Peach said that with a new dean of the graduate school and a changing climate across the country, he’s hopeful things will go well for graduate students in negotiation sessions next month.

“We’re not trying to get a free ride,” he said. “We’re just trying to pay our bills and live here in Bozeman, because it’s not cheap ... I hope, in the future, we’ll be able to live a realistic lifestyle.”

Abby Lynes can be reached at alynes@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2651. Follow her on Twitter @Abby_Lynes.

Abby Lynes covers business and the economy for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.

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