Adam Ratzlaff/Guest Columnist
As new and returning FIU graduate students start a new academic year, there is one cold fact that they need to consider— Miami is expensive, and being a graduate student at FIU means resigning oneself to living near poverty. This should not come as new information. A 2019 PantherNow exposé examining nearly 200 testimonials that had been given to administrators highlighted that due to low wages graduate students have taken on large levels of debt, worked under the table to make ends meet and even gone homeless in order to continue in their graduate programs.
This is not only true for those seeking to pay their way through school, but even for those students that come to FIU as “fully-funded.” While recognizing that graduate studies are expensive everywhere, the financial situation that FIU places its “fully-funded” graduate employees in shows just how difficult it is to survive FIU’s graduate education.
Despite the 2019 report that the school would raise graduate stipends over the course of several years to adjust to Miami’s high cost of living, there was a modest stipend increase for the 2019-2020 academic year,but nothing since. The modest increase did little to address the underlying challenges faced by its “fully-funded” graduate students. Some may try to say these statements are not true or that this is not an accurate portrayal of the FIU graduate student experience, so let’s go through the math and see what it takes to live on a graduate assistantship at FIU.
Although the situation affects students across FIU (who see stipends ranging from about $20,000 to $27,000), for the purposes of illustrating the situation faced by FIU graduate assistants, we will look at the 2019-2020 funding offered to graduate assistants in the Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA). When entering FIU’s SIPA Ph.D. programs, the most frequent form of funding is through one of the school’s graduate assistantships. These assistantships (the ones that provide for TAs in SIPA courses) pay $20,154 per year (for 4-years if you come in with a Master’s degree and 5-years if not) in exchange for a 20 hour per week position, tuition waiver and subsidized health insurance.
Now let’s compare that to what MIT researchers note as the living wage for a single adult in Miami— $33,441/year. While there can be debate about how this number is determined (in fact, as we will see below rents are actually higher than suggested), this means that SIPA graduate assistants get paid roughly 60.3% of what it takes to live in Miami. Although using the case of SIPA graduate assistants highlights the challenges faced by those at the lower end of FIU’s graduate assistantship payscale, the situation is still a problem for students in other schools as well, with the normal amounts paid to any graduate student at FIU remaining below Miami’s living wage. Given this gap, the reports about the financial challenges faced by FIU graduate students should come as little surprise.
Although only paying student employees 60% of the living wage for the city is shocking, the situation faced by graduate students is actually much worse than this statistic reveals. In fact, FIU policies and fees make the situation all the more dire for their graduate students. While on paper SIPA graduate assistants make over $20K per year, the reality is that the school’s tuition waivers don’t actually cover everything. Each year, FIU charges these graduate students $2,416.61 in fees, a number that represents approximately 11.99% of a SIPA graduate student’s gross income. While the fees are reduced to $1,271.26 (6.31% of income) after students complete their coursework, these fees are still being paid to the school even though the graduate student is now conducting their own research.
Additionally, although the school subsidizes health insurance for its graduate assistants, it only covers 75% of the cost and still charges $591.75 to be enrolled in the student health plan (another 2.94% of SIPA GA income). When one adjusts the graduate student stipends to incorporate these fees, students on graduate assistantships only make between $17,145.64 and $18,290.99, a number equal to between 51.27% and 54.7% of the estimated living wage. This is before taxes, school books or any other expenses.
If students make it the cost of living must be lower, right? No. Miami is one of the most expensive cities in the United States. While graduate students face numerous costs including food, utilities and transportation, perhaps the single most expensive cost in Miami is housing. While the MIT study cited earlier puts housing costs at $13,000 annually, the reality is that renting in Miami is much more expensive. According to Zumper, in July the average cost of a one-bedroom apartment was $1,800/month (a number that has increased since), or $21,600/year. This is above the SIPA graduate student stipend even before paying fees. Even when splitting an apartment, the average costs were $30,000/year for a two-bedroom apartment and $39,120/year for a three-bedroom apartment. This means that per room, these options still account for 74.4% and 64.7% of the pre-fee stipend paid to SIPA graduate students. Even putting two people to a room in an average three-bedroom apartment, FIU graduate assistants would be rent-burdened, a common sign of financial precarity.
There are a number of concrete actions that the FIU administration could take to address the situation faced by graduate students. They could pay higher stipends, eliminate graduate student fees, remove barriers to additional employment, fully fund health care or even provide subsidized graduate housing. Yet all of these policies and fees remain in place. FIU prides itself on being a place for social mobility but does not provide a living wage for its graduate students. Instead, to be an FIU graduate student, you must either live in poverty, come from money or have external support. If none of these are options, take out debt (in addition to what many have from undergraduate studies), and hopefully, someday you may actually be rid of it.
If you think that the situation facing FIU’s graduate students is untenable, please consider signing this petition calling on the FIU administration to examine and implement policies that would support our student body.
If you are a current or former FIU graduate student and you would like to share information about your experience as a graduate student, the hardships that you face(d), or recommendations for improving university policies that impact the graduate student body, please send your articles to firstname.lastname@example.org
The opinions presented within this page do not represent the views of PantherNOW Editorial Board. These views are separate from editorials and reflect individual perspectives of contributing writers and/or members of the University community
Photo from FIU Flickr