Significance of graduate assistants unrealized

By Gus Bode

Part of the Knight’s Oath states, “On my honor, I will do my best to help other people at all times and to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.”

I was contemplating these qualities for class when a report came on WSIL-TV 3 regarding the decrease in student enrollment at SIUC.

Though there was a 5.2 percent increase in first-time students, overall enrollment fell 1.1 percent and graduate student enrollment fell by 10.5 percent.

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As a graduate student myself, I was interested in the administration’s response to this huge drop — 10.5 percent seems statistically significant.

Chancellor Rita Cheng responded: “It could be a natural ‘up-and-down flow’ of applicants or it could be something we’ve overlooked, so we’re going to take a very hard look at our graduate enrollment.”

I take my job as a graduate assistant very seriously. “On my honor I will do my best….”

I am fully aware of my position in the university system.

The key to retention lies in the first two years of a student’s undergraduate experience, most of which is taught by graduate assistants like me. There is a strong correlation between undergraduate enrollment and graduate students. If undergraduate students do not have positive experiences under the direction of the GAs they encounter, they will not want to come back.

GAs cannot provide positive educational experiences for their undergraduate charges if they are overworked, under-supported or dissatisfied.

Graduate students used to be required to take six credit hours a semester.  That increased to eight credit hours in 2008.  Since most courses are three credit hours, we essentially have to sign up for nine hours now — 1/3 more work each semester.  Though stipends increased minimally to cover the difference in cost, fees increased at a greater rate over time, which eclipsed the raise altogether.

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As a GA, I also teach two sections of core curriculum courses for which I receive a monthly stipend. After taxes, I bring home $1,200 per month for nine months of teaching. Semester fees for nine credit hours are $1,350. That is more than one month’s take-home pay. In effect, I am paying to work overtime.  Minus fees, I earn $8,100 annually, or an average of $900 monthly.  To be fair, my tuition is also covered, which is $8,400 annually according to my Bursar bill.  So, here’s a little equation of my worth, but be careful. This is an English major attempting math:

$8,100 + $8,400 = $16,500 annual GA teaching package

divided by 9 teaching months = about $1,833 per month

divided by 80 students per year = about $23 per student, per month

The university expects me to provide quality education for 80 students per year: two classes per semester with 20 students per class.  My teaching is worth $23 per student per month, or $1.91 per student, per class period. I would wager each student is paying more than $23 for their monthly classroom experiences with me.

The center cannot hold in an environment like this.

We don’t want to raise health care fees as Cheng contended during her Tuesday morning interview on WSIU.

When fees go up, our pay goes down.

If SIUC wants to provide quality educational experience to both graduate students and the undergraduate students they are teaching, students who are teaching two courses should not be required to take three classes and GA fees should, at a minimum, be frozen.

When prospective graduate students have approached me or my colleagues, we tell them the truth: Professors are strong and research opportunities are tremendous, but fees are high, credit requirements are strenuous, there’s minimal healthcare and stipends are so low that loans are necessary rather than optional.

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark, and it’s not just an “up-and-down flow” of applicants.

Laura Borger

graduate  assistant

in English

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