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U grapples with graduate student compensation

Graduate student pay is top of mind this fall at the University of Utah.

Protests by University of California teaching and research assistants and the phased demolition of family and graduate apartments in University Student Apartments West Village and Medical Plaza have raised questions about how graduate students are compensated and what they pay in rent for university housing.

University leaders are setting up a task force to study the issue and report back with recommendations in 2023.

“The University of Utah wants to be part of the solution to this structural gap challenging higher education institutions across our country,” said President Taylor Randall. “These students are a very important part of the future of higher education in this country. They will be future researchers and educators for generations to come.”

This fall, 8,650 graduate students are enrolled at the university and just under 2,500 are employed as teaching and research assistants. Most graduate student instructors and researchers are paid through a combination of state-funded tuition waivers and salaries set by their colleges and departments—ranging from $7,890 per semester paid by the College of Fine Arts to $25,000 per semester at the School of Medicine. The average is just over $9,500 a semester.

All U graduate student instructors and researchers receive a minimum of $24,000 in tuition waivers and health benefits. Each year, the university provides $43 million in tuition waivers and another $2.5 million in health benefits.

Still, following several years of escalating housing prices in Salt Lake City and nationwide inflation, David Kieda, dean of the Graduate Schoo,l is advocating for the university to raise graduate students’ minimum compensation package.

“If we don’t give students enough money, they’re going to have to go out and work another job that has nothing to do with education in order to pay their bills,” Kieda said. “I’d rather have them in the lab or teaching. We’re trying to ensure our students are successful.”

Adding to the pinch, some graduate students and their faculty advisors are upset about projected rent increases in new family and graduate student housing currently under construction at University Student Apartments’ West Village at the corner of Sunnyside Avenue and Foothill Blvd. University of Utah Auxiliary Services sent notices on Oct. 21 to residents of the remaining 334 units in University West Village and Medical Plaza. The single and married graduate students who live in the apartments have until August 2023 to find off-campus housing or express interest and receive priority for new housing.

Proposed market-rate rents posted for the new buildings have raised alarms among many of the 490 residents impacted. University family and graduate housing are particularly critical for international graduate students, who may begin their work and education at the U. without the ability to qualify to rent other housing in the Salt Lake City market. Most do not have Social Security numbers and cannot complete a credit and reference check. University Student Apartments can help build that rental history.

The apartments were built in 1961 and 1971, and have long outlived their usefulness, said Jennifer Reed, associate vice president of Auxiliary Services. The bonds that funded the original buildings were paid off years ago and rents in the buildings have been kept artificially low—ranging from $725 to $1,550 per unit—as university leaders worked on a master plan to replace the aging apartments. With university apartment rents so low, the Medical Plaza and both University West and University East Village have 12-month-long wait lists.

At the same time, the university is beginning to struggle to maintain the aging buildings. Pipe breaks are common, including one middle-of-the-night flood over a Medical Towers student’s bedroom this fall. The student had to be moved and the apartment closed.

The new apartments will cost between $900 to $2,350 a month, essentially the market rate for a downtown Salt Lake City studio or one- to three-bedroom unit. Laundry, internet and campus shuttle service are provided free of charge.

“We know these new rents have surprised some of our residents,” said Reed. “We have not kept up with the Salt Lake City market. But with the aging housing, we were providing, we didn’t feel comfortable raising rents at the same rate as the city market. We may have done the students a disservice in the process.”

The adjusted rental rates were set based on $126 million in bonds issued to cover the cost of the new construction. State law requires that auxiliary services—including parking, the Campus Store, the stadium and arena and student housing—be self-sustaining. Rental income from the buildings will be used to pay those bonds over the next 30 years.

The market-rate rents also are a matter of fairness, Reed said, with students in other campus housing, including residence halls, paying above-market rates in some cases.

“It is likely that there are some students who have lived in our apartments who are going to have to go off campus because the new rates don’t meet their budgets,” she said, “which is why we tried to give them as much time as possible to find alternatives.”

Academic Senate members discussed the rent increases at a Nov. 7 meeting. And a group of village residents crowded into a forum with Auxiliary Services last month.

“It’s a perfect storm,” said Vahe Bandarian, associate dean for student affairs in the College of Science. “Students are unhappy because they are not feeling much support and faculty are feeling the pressure on their grants as they try to increase student stipends.”

While graduate students have until August to prepare for the housing closures, the issue of any changes in graduate student compensation will be decided in the institution’s budgeting process. Randall will present the university’s budget to state lawmakers early next year. The next fiscal year begins July 1, 2023.

“Anyone in higher education these days is concerned about the rising cost of attendance,” Reed said. “It is hard to make ends meet with the cost of higher education right now. We all are concerned about the rising cost of attendance and what that’s doing to access for students.”