Burruss Hall at Virginia Tech. Photo courtesy of Virginia Tech.

Virginia Tech’s task force on graduate student compensation has recommended the university raise stipends to at least $2,400 per month to catch up to the cost of living.

Though the university has raised graduate student assistantships by 5% over the last two years and reportedly plans to make a similar adjustment for the coming academic year, the task force’s new report says small adjustments are “not sufficient” to meet graduate students’ minimum cost of living. 

The current minimum monthly stipend is $1,679. 

For the 2022-23 school year, a majority of the about 5,000 full-time graduate and professional students at Virginia Tech received assistantships, which waive tuition and provide a monthly stipend in exchange for work. Students work an average of 20 hours per week, often serving as teaching assistants for undergraduate courses or conducting research in campus labs.

The minimum cost of living for a single graduate student in the Blacksburg area, according to the task force, is $2,734 per month. But the report — the first of its kind at Virginia Tech — points out that 92% of those receiving assistantships get paid less than that, based on fall 2022 enrollment. 

A stipend of $2,400 per month would amount to $21,600 over nine months.

“Providing compensation to meet the cost of living recognizes the essential contributions of graduate assistants to every function of the university,” the task force wrote, including research, instruction and outreach. “Graduate assistants should have funding sufficient to meet the necessities of daily life.”

“It’s hard in some ways to define the cost of living, but at points it seemed like the university was surprised at what it costs for graduate students, because there hadn’t been a look [into it] as deep as this,” said Ben Beiter, president of the Graduate and Professional Student Senate, who served on the task force. Beiter is a doctoral candidate in mechanical engineering.

Task force member Maruf Hoque, also a doctoral candidate, said many students are past the point of being able to cut back on their expenses. “When you’re not making ends meet, it’s a problem,” he said. And while it may be possible to live on the bare minimum for a year or two, graduate school lasts longer than that for a lot of students at Tech. 

The school’s board of visitors sets the compensation level for graduate students each year. 

An article posted on Tech’s online news site said that once state funding and tuition increases are determined for the coming fiscal year, the school will be able to finalize a plan to increase compensation for graduate students. “The university anticipates it will be able to start the process of elevating stipend levels for assistantships on the lower end of the scale,” the article noted. 

The university declined to comment on the issue beyond what was included in the article.

The board of visitors will host a 30-minute virtual public session on Thursday to hear comments regarding tuition and fees for the upcoming year. The board will then have its own discussion on March 20, which will include employee and graduate student compensation, according to a university announcement.

Virginia Tech created the Graduate Assistantship Support Task Force in May 2022 to make recommendations about stipends and other financial support for graduate students. Seventeen people serve on the task force: a combination of graduate school leaders, university budget and student services administrators, and graduate students. 

Assistantships are typically awarded for the academic year and are paid over nine months. Though some graduate students get part-time jobs on top of their studies and their assistantships or find summer gigs, many international students aren’t allowed to earn off-campus income.

A housing survey conducted by the university found that graduate students pay nearly 50% of their average monthly income on housing. Virginia Tech has one on-campus housing option for individual graduate students in Blacksburg, but it only has space for 115 of them. Students who don’t want to live in a dorm-like setting, or who come to campus with family members, are largely at the whims of the local rental housing market.

Beiter said his financial situation is “tenable” in part because he moved in with two roommates at the beginning of the pandemic, before inflation began to skyrocket. But he doesn’t live in Blacksburg — he’s in nearby Christiansburg, because Blacksburg was too expensive. 

In Roanoke, Hoque said students can usually find housing within 10 miles of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC, where he studies vascular biology. But transportation can be challenging, especially for international students who may not have their own vehicles.

Among other task force recommendations to boost graduate student finances is one to cover comprehensive fees for students receiving assistantships. These fees, which go toward student activities, transportation, health services, athletics and recreational sports, added up to $2,376 for the 2022-23 academic year. If the university covered those fees for students receiving assistantships, the task force calculated it would boost the amount of money available for student cost of living by about 10%.

In addition, while graduate students with assistantships get health insurance through the university, they pay for prescriptions along with vision and dental coverage. 

Compensation for graduate students has been a topic of discussion at institutions around the country.

In Philadelphia, graduate students at Temple University went on strike on Jan. 31 after more than a year negotiating wages amid increased cost of living. There, the graduate student union proposed annual wages of at least $32,800 for graduate students, whereas the university had proposed a salary of $22,500, according to an NPR report. The current average graduate student makes $19,500.

Temple warned graduate students that striking would cause them to have their compensation packages revoked, and told NPR that about 20% of graduate students had lost their benefits.

Graduate student unions aren’t new — Temple graduate students formed theirs in 1997, for one. But there’s been an upswing in recent years of student unionization efforts on campuses around the country, by graduate student workers who feel taken for granted by the universities they attend. 

In Durham, North Carolina, the Duke Graduate Students Union has asked for voluntary recognition by the university after getting signatures of support from more than half of doctoral students. Shortly after a fall rally led by the union, Duke announced it would raise doctoral student stipends by 11% for 2023-24, to about $38,000.

In Virgina, United Campus Workers of Virginia represents public college and university employees, including graduate students. Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Virginia have chapters; the UVa chapter stepped in when some graduate workers were paid their stipends late in December 2022. Graduate assistants at UVa get paid between $26,000 and $28,000 per year, according to a student representative from the union.

Back at Virginia Tech, Beiter said that while there have been discussions about unionizing graduate students, the university’s willingness to engage with issues around costs may curb some of the desire to form a union. 

“Grad students have a lot to do. They are chronically overworked,” he said. “Organizing [a union] would be more work for students.”

Hoque hopes the university continues to regularly examine the cost of living for both students and staff, and pay attention to what other institutions are doing regarding compensation. “If Virginia Tech wishes to lead the pack, they need to step up now,” he said. “We can’t wait five years for this increase. Other universities will have already come through.”

Lisa Rowan is education reporter for Cardinal News. She can be reached at lisa@cardinalnews.org or 540-384-1313.