A recent post in an online forum asked for tips on how to live on a meager graduate program stipend. “I need to figure out a really strict budget, but that’s hard when rent will take everything I have.” Unfortunately, this is a common problem for those getting their masters and doctorates. Graduate workers like myself perform a variety of duties for their institutions, including research, community outreach, writing, lecturing, grading, mentoring and working with university centers outside their departments.
The University of New Mexico, the state’s flagship university, estimates that the cost of living for a single graduate student in Albuquerque is around $22,000 per year. Yet the University pays its graduate workers a minimum stipend of about $14,000 per year. I am paid around $3,500 per semester to teach an undergraduate course about social justice in economics, and the irony in this is not lost on me. While my position is only billed as 10 hours per week, I spend many more preparing lectures, grading, holding office hours and creating assignments and exams — in addition to my dissertation work. Most of my colleagues use a combination of loans and federal assistance programs like food stamps to get by. This is an even more severe problem for graduate workers with dependents, as well as international graduate workers with U.S. visas that limit how much and where they can work.
A UNM spokesperson said to the Albuquerque Journal “post-master teacher assistants don’t have to pay tuition, which makes total compensation the equivalent of $30,000 per year.” But tuition waivers do not pay the rent. Officially, UNM admits that they do not count waivers as a form of pay: “The University of New Mexico considers this tuition waiver as a scholarship and not as payment for services rendered.” Claiming that tuition waivers count as compensation is an accounting trick that means nothing to the graduate students whose labor helps the University fulfill its mission.
These low wages not only hurt current graduate workers, but also future ones. Prospective graduate students from low-income backgrounds who are interested in researching topics that will help humanity have to make a choice between living in poverty for four to six years or not attending. By continuing to pay wages below the poverty line, UNM is sending the message that low-income graduates and other historically disadvantaged students do not belong in academia and diminishing the quality of teaching and research that we provide.
This is why we have formed a union made up of a supermajority of graduate workers. However, despite all the work we do for UNM, the University is claiming that we are not employees and therefore do not have a legal right to unionize. Not only is this adding insult to injury, the University is also willing to fight a costly legal battle to disenfranchise us instead of simply paying us a living wage.
I love UNM — I am actually a fourth-generation Lobo. But it feels like the powers that be at UNM do not love me back. If they did, surely they would pay me enough to live.
Katherine Gutierrez is a doctoral candidate in the UNM department of economics, a teaching assistant for an undergraduate course and an organizer with the United Graduate Workers of UNM union