University should consider cost-of-living increase in upcoming GEO negotiations

Beware, for the political season is almost upon us!

No, I don’t mean the politics of the presidential election (although that’s coming too, and beware all the same). I mean the upcoming contract negotiations between the Graduate Employees’ Organization and the University administration.

Two years ago, disputes grew into a thankfully short-lived strike. I, and the GEO too, it seems, adhere to the philosophy that graduate assistants should be provided enough funding to remove any need to find a second job or take out loans. That’s why the GEO spoke out for guaranteed tuition waivers two years ago. That’s why the GEO complained when some assistants were in danger of receiving zero-dollar paychecks last fall.

Despite the impression given so far, not all issues were economic, but one economic issue in particular deserves a further moment of discussion: the cost of living adjustment.

For those like myself who plug our ears and sing before anyone gets much past the macro of macroeconom- (La la la laaa!), the cost of living adjustment is a small increase in yearly salary, often around 2 or 3 percent, to keep pace with the yearly increase in the cost of food, transportation, housing, etc. It’s a raise in the sense that it increases the amount paid, but it’s not a raise in the sense that it doesn’t increase the actual worth of the salary.

In the current contract, only the minimum salary for graduate assistants was guaranteed a cost of living increase.

Some graduate students never even feel the impact of cost of living increases or the lack thereof. Students in two-year master’s programs would barely have a chance to see the small decrease in their buying power from their first year to the second, but doctoral programs commonly go as long as six years. That’s six years of not paying off student loans. That’s six years for inflation to creep up. Since 2006 alone, the average cost of living has increased around 12 percent.

Departments can and often do already offer cost of living adjustments for their graduate assistants. Why then do I feel that it should be part of a contract with the University?

The easiest answer would be that it gives peace of mind to graduate students. Graduate school is after all a significant investment. Students enter graduate school having to plan out their finances many years in advance, and the more knowledge they have about what will be available to them, the better.

But, in addition, it helps to raise the profile of the University. High-tier schools compete with one another to bring talented students to their campus. This is just as true for undergrads as it is for grads.

It’s common for qualified seniors applying to graduate school to be accepted to a small number of universities. Sometimes the decision of which school to attend is made on things that the university has no control over: its location, climate or size. But money, no surprise, is a major factor as well. So, often the first ones to be eliminated from consideration are those that don’t offer any kind of teaching or research job at all. Applicants, however, don’t automatically accept the position that offers the most money; the actual dollar-value on the stipend isn’t as important as how it relates to the local cost of living.

At this point, the presence of a cost of living increase can sway a student’s decision. A guaranteed cost of living increase doesn’t speak so much to a university’s strength as a lack of such a guarantee speaks to the university’s weakness. What does it tell an applicant if one university can make the guarantee and another one can’t?

So, is the cost of living increase a mandatory ingredient of a contract? By no means.

It is merely a tool, one of many, that the university can use to show that it considers the graduate community to be an important part of the campus.

And after the poor way in which the administration treated graduate students during the last negotiations, honestly, it could afford to show that a little more.

Joseph is a graduate student.