The Struggle for Tuition-Free Education

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By Mary Grace Hebert

A breathtaking piece by Black Students for Revolution in the January 2016 Public i called for tuition to be eliminated because it perpetuates an unjust system. Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has called for free college; similarly, Republicans have proposed methods to lower tuition. It seems everyone is concerned about high tuition. However, high tuition doesn’t just affect undergraduates; graduate students are increasingly facing high costs for their education.

University education in the United States functions as a marketplace, where universities act increasingly like corporations and students and parents seek to maximize return on investment. As the Wall Street Journal put it, “The U.S. Education Department’s College Scorecard website helps you figure out where to get ‘the most bang for your educational buck’ by compiling federal data collected from colleges. from the Chronicle of Higher Education allows for quick and easy comparisons between colleges on measures families should weigh during their search.”

Given the rising cost of tuition at universities nationwide, parents and students are asking themselves whether paying for a degree is worth it. Despite the cost, many students still say yes. The US Census Bureau estimates that 32% of adults over the age of 25 have a Bachelor’s Degree or higher. The number continues to grow. Due to a lackluster job market, stagnating wages for college graduates, and other reasons, many Millennials have pursued post-graduate degrees. They have been dubbed “The Most Educated Generation.” They spent a lot to get that title. 40% of student debt belongs to graduate students. Although undergraduate students are often the focus of student loan coverage, graduate and undergraduate students are both saddled with debt.

Some graduate students may hope for teaching or research appointments to defray the cost of tuition; at the University of Illinois, graduate employees holding teaching or graduate assistantships receive tuition waivers as part of the Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiated by the Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO). The tuition is not paid by any department or entity, but is waived; graduate students pay a portion of fees or tuition, depending on their department. This reduces the financial burden on graduate employees so that they can concentrate on teaching, learning, and researching. Without waivers, graduate employees would be paying to work.

Luckily for the graduate employees at the University of Illinois, Urbana, two arbitration decisions have upheld their right to tuition waivers. In July 2011, the GEO won an arbitration that stipulated that that graduate employees in Fine and Applied Arts (FAA) who had been billed for a portion of their tuition, in some cases the difference between out-of-state and in-state tuition, had to be repaid. The University finally repaid the owed tuition plus interest in Spring of 2013; the total repayment amounted to over $440,000.

A little over a year after the GEO had secured payment to FAA students, tuition waivers came under attack again. In August 2014, the GEO found out that some graduate students in the Master’s of Computer Science (MCS) were deemed ineligible to hold waiver-generating appointments. The MCS program had been designated as a professional degree program for the purpose of generating revenue for the department. In order to receive a teaching or graduate assistantship, students’ tuition had to be paid by their employing department; thus, if a student was employed as a TA by Electrical and Computer Engineering that department would pay MCS the student’s tuition, in addition to paying that student’s wages.

The GEO successfully argued in arbitration in August 2015 that this created a burden on employing departments and prevented qualified graduate students from holding tuition-waiver generating appointments. As arbitrator Malamud put it, “The MCS action upsets the full panoply of assumptions that underlie the University framework of support for graduate students. It reduces the value of the tuition waiver, when it imposes the costs of the tuition waiver on the employing unit, the unit granting the assistantship. The tuition waiver is transformed from the primary form of compensation to a competitive disqualifying cost.” The full implications of the decision have yet to be determined, but it’s the second arbitration decision to protect graduate employees’ access to tuition waivers.

However, you may be asking yourself, “What about the program that was earning funding through student tuition?” One faculty member I spoke with asserted that the department had to make money some way and that if it was not made off the backs of graduate students, then it would be made off the backs of undergraduate students. On its face the statement seems logical, but it is incorrect on two points.

First, the tuition waived by tuition waivers is not paid by anyone; it is waived; it does not contribute to the income of the department in which graduate employees are students. The tuition that is waived does not appear anywhere on the budget as a source of revenue and only exists as a credit in the graduate employees’ accounts; the graduate employees earn their waiver by teaching many of the University’s courses or assisting in other ways.

Secondly, the statement is premised on tuition as the only source of income, but tuition is not the only source of revenue. One source of revenue is the endowment; an Op-Ed in the New York Times recently argued, “Congress should require universities with endowments in excess of $100 million to spend at least 8 percent of the endowment each year.” Endowments are invested and grow every year, thus 8% would not wipe out a University’s endowment.

Currently, according to its own report, the University of Illinois spends 4% of its endowment. Doubling that and devoting it to cutting tuition could help lower tuition. In addition to changes in revenue, there could also be changes in spending. Administrative costs have ballooned in recent decades. The University could make many changes to make both graduate and undergraduate education more accessible. Making programs accessible would also raise the quality of graduate and undergraduate programs because qualified individuals would not be excluded due to tuition.

At first glance, it may seem incongruous if not impossible to ask both for tuition-free education and that tuition waivers for graduate employees be preserved. It is not impossible if the University commits to spending more of its endowment and reduces the bureaucratic toll on the budget. It is also necessary. Lowering tuition to make the University more accessible to both graduate and undergraduate students is necessary if the University is to continue to be a high-ranking public education institution. Business-as-usual in the university system cannot continue; there must be change.

As Black Students for Revolution put it, “There are enough resources within this country to allow for free education at all levels, but it will never be that way until we demand it to be so.” The University has the resources. It needs to commit funds to education instead of bureaucracy and return to its core mission as an institution of public education.

2016 02 25 Mary Hebert

Mary Grace Hébert is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Communication at UIUC. She serves as the Grievance Officer for the GEO.

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