The Virginia Tech Board of Visitors voted Tuesday to raise graduate student compensation by 5% for the 2023-2024 year, following a university report that called for dramatic increases to the pay structure.
The decision is in line with salary increases approved throughout the university. If the General Assembly approves additional funding for Virginia Tech, President Tim Sands can further increase salaries for the upcoming academic year.
The approval wipes out the lowest levels of the pay schedule for graduate students receiving assistantships, bringing minimum monthly pay from the previous floor of $1,763 to a new minimum of $2,420.
During his report to the board, Sands called the increase to graduate compensation a “first step” and said there’s “more to be done,” but was pleased with the increase for the upcoming year.
Rector Tish Long also commented that the board would continue to examine the recommendations of the graduate compensation task force, which found that 92% of students receiving assistantships for the most recent academic year were paid less than the Blacksburg-area cost of living of $2,734 per month. The task force was composed of graduate students along with university faculty and staff.
Rachel Maizel, president of the Graduate and Professional Student Senate, said after the meeting that while students are grateful to have the minimum assistantship increased, it’s only a stopgap measure.
“It’s going to help a lot of people, but it’s still below what the task force recommended,” she said. “It’s hard to feel optimistic when we don’t have a plan for how we’re going to get to that $2,700 cost of living.”
While the task force report called for the establishment of a committee to regularly examine cost of living and graduate compensation, the board of visitors has not yet acted on that recommendation.
The board has increased graduate student compensation by 5% annually for the last few years, in line with statewide salary increases for Virginia employees.
For the 2022-23 school year, a majority of 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.
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 stipend of $2,420 per month means that a graduate student with a nine-month assistantship would be paid $21,780 before taxes and health insurance premiums (the university subsidizes 88% the premium for graduate students). A student on a 12-month assistantship would earn just over $29,000.
Several meeting attendees held signs in support of raising graduate student compensation, repeating messages that had been displayed at previous meetings this spring.
A group called Virginia Tech Grad Students Anonymous had prepared two editions of a zine that featured stories from students who discussed their difficulty paying for basic needs like food. Student supporters provided copies of that zine and other flyers to board members at previous meetings this spring where tuition and fees were discussed.
Graduate students across the country have been especially vocal about compensation in recent years. In May, grad students at Temple University in Philadelphia ratified a new contract to bring the minimum salary to $24,000, but only after the students — who are unionized — went on strike for six weeks.
Virginia Tech graduate students are not unionized. But Maizel said she’s been getting questions from students who feel that the board of visitors hasn’t engaged with them enough on the issue of a living wage. “Realistically if they don’t negotiate with us and engage with us, how else will graduate students fight for a living wage?” she said. “It’s really tying our hands here.”
The task force also recommended that assistantships be expanded to cover comprehensive fees that all students must pay. Virginia Tech’s annual comprehensive fee goes toward student activities, transportation, health services, athletics and recreational sports.
The board did not make any changes to the fee structure for graduate students at Tuesday’s meeting.
At its April meeting on tuition and fees, the board raised comprehensive fees by 8.8% for the upcoming year, bringing the mandatory fee to $2,585.
If the university covered the 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%.