istock.com/Ja_inter, adapted by M. Atarod/Science

Hefty university fees are sending some grad students to food banks

To help offset declines in state funding, many U.S. public universities are billing their graduate students for thousands of dollars of university fees. The charges, many of them new or recently increased, frequently come as a shock to master’s and Ph.D. students in science, technology, engineering, and math fields who expect their years of training to be financially feasible because they do not pay tuition and receive modest stipends for their research and teaching work.

At Louisiana State University (LSU) in Baton Rouge, for example, grad students are charged $4900 per year in student fees—a sum that has more than doubled in 5 years. “We are not here to be rich,” but grad students who work for the university expect to be able to make ends meet, says Luis Santiago-Rosario, a biology Ph.D. student at LSU who—like many in his situation—wasn’t aware of the fees until he started his program. He’s had to take out $6000 in federal student loans each of the 2 years he’s been in grad school because his teaching stipend—roughly $22,000—isn’t enough to cover the fees as well as living expenses. “[Our pay] is not enough; it’s absolutely not enough after the fees.”

“It’s really hard to be a student here,” adds Erin Good, a physics Ph.D. student at the university who points out that LSU policy bars graduate assistants from seeking outside employment to supplement their income. “I know a ton of people who are relying on food banks … it’s really getting untenable.” LSU isn’t alone in issuing hefty bills. Many other institutions across the country—including private ones—charge fees ranging from less than $100 to a few thousand dollars. But LSU’s fees are especially steep.

An LSU spokesperson wrote that the university is aware of the squeeze on its grad students. “We continue to evaluate resources to further support our graduate students, as we work within the constraints of the university’s operating budget,” the statement said. On other campuses, students and faculty are also demanding action through strikes and petitions.

Cutbacks in public funding at a time when student numbers are growing and the cost of education is rising have left universities looking for new revenue. “Higher education is being shoved out of state budgets,” says David Feldman, a professor of economics at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. In response, many public universities have raised tuition. But some states limit tuition hikes. “Fees have been used as this wiggle room way to increase funding if you can’t increase tuition,” says Sophia Laderman, a senior policy analyst at the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, a nonprofit organization based in Boulder, Colorado.

At LSU, for example, the university instituted a “student excellence fee” in 2016—saying the money would be used to hire instructors and teaching assistants, among other things. At first, grad students were charged roughly $500 per year, but this year the bill is more than $2200, making it the highest of the university’s current fees. The fact that grad students seem to be charged for a service they themselves provide—teaching—is bewildering, says Good, who has advocated for fee changes on behalf of LSU’s grad students.

There are some hopeful signs for grad students who are struggling. At the University of Illinois in Chicago, the graduate student union initiated a strike largely to protest fees, says Sagen Cocklin, a physics Ph.D. student who pays $1200 per year in student fees and serves as co-president of the union’s steering committee. Two weeks into the strike, which led to the cancellation of hundreds of classes, the university agreed to cut the international student fee—$260 per year—in half and increase stipend levels to offset other fees.

Growing student burden

Over the past 20 years, student costs for U.S. public universities and colleges have grown as state funding has generally decreased, with some fluctuations in response to economic trends. (Numbers are adjusted for inflation.)

’98 ’00 ’02 ’04 ’06 ’08 ’10 ’12 ’14 ’16 ’18 0 2 4 6 8 $10 Thousand State funding per student Tuition and fee revenue per student
Graphic: K. Langin/Science; ​Data: State Higher Education Executive Officers Association

Elsewhere, grad students are hoping for similar progress. At the University of Colorado in Boulder, for instance, more than 1600 people—including grad students, faculty members, and state and federal legislators—signed a petition calling for $1700 in annual fees to be waived for graduate teaching and research assistants. At the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) in Atlanta, the most controversial fee—the $1000 per year “special institutional fee”—is set by the state, not the university, so waivers are less feasible. Instead, grad students, who face fees totaling $2800 per year, are proposing steps to offset the burden, such as reducing the cost of on-campus housing and making it easier for professors to raise stipend levels. “We are trying to seek creative solutions,” says Narayan Shirolker, a materials science and engineering Ph.D. student at Georgia Tech who serves as president of the grad student association.

Georgia Tech professor Joshua Weitz, who directs the quantitative biosciences graduate program, has gathered information about fees at 67 universities and in March wrote an op-ed for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution arguing that the fees create financial stress for existing students and make it challenging for faculty to recruit new students, particularly those with limited financial resources. “Graduate students are benefiting the institute in a fundamental way,” Weitz says. “I think it will take some time, but we should aim in the direction of eliminating [their] fees.”

Not everyone agrees, though, that concessions for grad students are the obvious path forward. Undergraduate students already subsidize graduate education, Feldman notes. “Would it be ‘good’ if we pushed undergraduate tuition up [even more] to compensate for lower graduate fees?” He doesn’t have an answer to that question—but he thinks that it’s something that everyone debating the issue needs to seriously consider. “Those revenues fund things. Who would pay?”