Opinion guest column

MIT’s policies force many graduate students to live in poverty

Threatened with eviction, forced to forgo medical care, and living in fear for my family: my life at MIT

“You’re lucky to be here.”

The words from the MIT administrator hung in the air. I did feel grateful to study at MIT and receive a world-class education that hopefully one day would help me become an academic. But I was trying to explain to this administrator how unbearably difficult it is to pay my MIT bills while supporting my partner and child on an MIT graduate student’s stipend. And here I was, a day late on clearing my balance, being told to feel grateful.

Those words hurt, but they were neither unique nor surprising. MIT administrators have been consistently dismissive towards my tenuous financial situation — a situation created by MIT’s own policies that, as I will describe shortly, make surviving as an international graduate student with a family a nightmare.

Indeed, at one of the wealthiest universities in the world, in the richest country in the world, I have been pushed to live near the poverty line for many of those years. Through its policies, both big and small, MIT has made my life as a graduate student financial torture as I struggle to complete my studies. I have been threatened with eviction. I have been forced to forego essential medical care for my spouse and myself. And I have nearly dropped out of school entirely because I could not afford to remain.

I want to note upfront that I am not writing this article to seek any kind of charity, nor to seek action against any particular MIT administrator. In fact, I will refuse both of these if offered, so even if you are sympathetic — and I do appreciate it! — please do not reach out. Rather, in this piece I hope to show that the issues I face are structural, created by MIT’s own policies, and faced by many, many graduate students across the university. I only tell my personal story to illustrate the larger struggles we students face.

Given U.S. laws disallowing my spouse to work, I am meant to support my family — my partner and child — on my graduate student stipend. Put differently, my graduate stipend is not just my own salary; it is my family’s income. Unfortunately, MIT’s own policies make it nearly impossible to live on a $30,000 salary.

While housing costs in Cambridge are astronomical for everyone, MIT does little to help international students who are limited by law in how much they can work. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development defines those who pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing as cost-burdened. Those who pay 50 percent or more are severely rent-burdened. Towards my MIT housing, I pay about 70 percent of my family income for rent. And this is the cheapest option that my family qualifies for. MIT provides no additional subsidy, even for students in its own housing. As a result, I live in “shelter poverty”: unable to meet my basic needs because of extraordinarily high housing costs. 

Given how I have to monitor money, I have occasionally been a few days late paying the registration. One time, after being three days late, I was charged a $100 late fee and was threatened with eviction if I did not pay. This, by an institution that has, by its own rental structure and stipend amount, forced me into this position of stretching every dollar.

As if these housing costs weren’t bad enough, MIT’s exorbitantly expensive family health insurance plan ($400 per month) puts further strain on my family. Then there is the seemingly minor — but for people like me, huge — $50 per month student life fee. That leaves us with less than $60 a week to pay for food, transportation, and any other costs that may arise — including co-payments.

While there have been crucial steps taken over the past two years by the Division for Student Life, including the Family Food Grant, TechMart, and the SwipeShare program, MIT has made a series of unfortunate changes to its policies that make even living on that amount all but impossible — policies that, had students living paycheck to paycheck like myself been consulted, perhaps never would have been made.

Two years ago, for instance, MIT doubled its co-payment for emergency room (ER) visits outside MIT Medical to $100. Soon after, they cut the hours of the MIT Urgent Care to half a day (8:00 a.m.–7:30 p.m.), with even more limited hours for pediatric services, especially on the weekend. Even in those limited hours, the pediatric service is not usually available, and I am almost always told by Pediatrics to either visit an ER outside MIT or file a complaint with MIT Medical. 

One particularly harrowing story illustrates how these changes have impacted our family. A few months ago, for instance, my child had a high fever. We called MIT Pediatrics and explained the situation. They said there was no schedule available and that we should take our child to the ER at the Children’s Hospital. At Children’s, the doctors emphasized that if the fever didn’t subside by the next morning, my child should see her doctor at MIT Pediatrics. We tried to schedule an appointment at MIT but were told no time was available. My child was in pain with red rashes all over her body, so we did what any normal parent would do: took her back to the emergency room. Going back to MIT a third time, we were again told no appointment was available — and so went back to the emergency room for the third time.

Thankfully, my daughter got better within a week, but the effects lingered. That episode caused incredible stress for my wife and me over my daughter’s health. In addition, given MIT’s policy changes, I had to pay $300 just in co-payments — more than my entire budget for a month. MIT must do better to ensure its own students can afford health care for their families. 

As a result of these seemingly small and externally-caused changes, I live in fear of the weekends. Why? Because — terrible as it sounds — I feel anxious that my child might require medical care, resulting in co-pays that I cannot afford. So while everyone else is looking forward to a couple days off, each Friday afternoon is a portent of fear for me: what do I do if my child needs to go to the hospital?

My spouse and I never go to the emergency room on the weekend, even if we have to deal with the pain and illness until Monday morning. But we cannot do the same for our child. So when a friend kindly says, “Have a great weekend, long-weekend, or holiday,” that simply means to us, “Hope your fears won’t come true this weekend.”

We always prioritize the health needs of our child. But as a result, our own health deteriorates. I cannot purchase a pair of eyeglasses that MIT Medical has emphatically recommended me to wear for two years now, nor can we seek dental care that we need, because these medically-necessary items have turned into “luxury goods” for us. Any parent would make such sacrifices for their children. This is the level of sacrifice I make every day.

MIT made these changes without consulting the students that would be impacted the most by them. And so, one of the wealthiest universities in the world is forcing its own students to put off essential medical care in order to save for co-payment costs of their children.

Living under this financial strain brings a toll on my mental health and that of my family — questions that MIT never asks in its multiple surveys of, and gestures for, students’ mental health. There have been questions of how a student’s family health may impact their financial situation, but MIT should recognize the reverse.

I have received tremendous support from my own department (DUSP) and have had only those caring staff and my incredibly supportive advisor to turn to. But unfortunately, the MIT administration, despite my multiple requests of them over the past six years, has not shown even a tiny portion of the same support. Even worse, MIT has often passed my stories to my department people despite my having shared them in private.

The attitude of “you’re lucky to be here” or “you’re responsible for your ordeal” is pervasive wherever I turn to. For example, when I asked an MIT administrator to waive the punitive hold-fee to register for the next semester because I was only one week behind in paying my balance, they shouted at me in a crowded room: “MIT is not a charity organization. Channel your indignation to other offices that should deal with that!”

Embarrassed, I went to the other office they recommended. There, I was asked a range of disturbing and very personal questions cloaked in kindness and concern. “The Institute has always been very clear about the living costs that you should expect as a student, yet you have accepted the offer of admission and, worse, had a child, knowing that you will face difficulties meeting these costs?” Again, I blamed myself and left the room.

I understand the MIT policy (section 8.3.1) that “stipends are not intended necessarily to cover the full cost of living.” But how can students like me survive, let alone remain sane, when the current stipend covers at most a quarter of the living expenses that MIT itself has calculated? This is particularly dire for international students, especially those coming from low-income countries, who cannot seek public subsidy programs or non-private health insurance due to the current U.S. administration’s policies. Seeking public services while on a non-immigrant visa would disqualify us from obtaining immigrant visas afterwards.

Of course, MIT is limited by U.S. law around international students, but subsidizing housing for those in need and providing flexibility for those living paycheck to paycheck, is the least it could do to live up to the “heart” at the core of its mantra.

Imagine the outcomes if MIT invested more in its students’ quality of life than in fossil fuel companies. Imagine the outcomes if MIT administratiors opened their eyes to the realities of students’ lives rather than constantly asking them to open their hearts for this mental health officer or at that counselling service office. Imagine the outcomes if MIT put more resources to overhaul its unjust structure than it does to redevelop half of Cambridge. Imagine the outcomes if MIT administrators, instead of deliberating on whether or not to accept money from an accused sex trafficker, deliberated on how to make pediatrics and childcare services more available to its students.

I would prefer not to publicly discuss these issues: the opprobrium of being associated with financial difficulty haunts our dignity as students, as parents, and especially as internationals. The moment you divulge your ordeal with a friend, a staff, or a faculty member, your relationship with them changes forever: conventional people see you as a rent-seeker, and progressive ones take pity on you. That’s loneliness. This leaves me with only a very small circle of friends with whom I can comfortably but very occasionally speak. 

Yes, I have fears for my future, but I also hope for the future of my family as well as the future of others. So, I share my story so other graduate students know that they are not alone in their suffering, that they can be heard as well. And if doing so comes at the cost of my bearing the ignominy of financial predicament, then let it be.

Yes, I feel lucky to be here. And I am proud that I try to study hard while sometimes — when legally allowed — working four jobs to provide for my family. But I also feel that as students, we deserve better. I feel that MIT needs to live up to its reputation as one of our world’s finest universities by treating its graduate students with the respect they deserve.

B. Mano is a shortened name of the author (bmanouch@mit.edu), who would like to preserve some online anonymity for personal reasons. Please reach out to grads4healthymit@gmail.com to follow up on the piece or Graduate Students for a Healthy MIT's campaign.

Update 10/31/19: The article was updated to include contact information for Graduate Students for a Healthy MIT.