Graduate Student Council Advocacy Subcommittee presents recommendations for 2021–2022 stipend rates to Deans’ Council

Subcommittee considers living wage and peer competitiveness, recommends 4.5% stipend increase

The Graduate Student Council (GSC) was informed about the 2021 Graduate Stipend Committee recommendations presented to the Deans’ Council in a March 16 email.

A 4.5% increase in stipend was deemed appropriate after an analysis, taking into account the living wage and peer competitiveness criteria. An increase of $3,000 to the Grant for Graduate Students with Children was also proposed while advocating restricting departments from paying less than the agreed upon base stipend rate.

The committee also noted that both the stock market and MIT’s own financial performance are trending favorably. Thus, the committee deemed these recommendations feasible and well-justified when combined with substantial optimism over “increased federal research funding and the outlook for returning to a new normal over the coming months.”

The committee consists of seven student members and four staff and faculty members. In an email to The Tech, Nick Allen, Denise Tellbach, and Jonathan Behrens, student members of the committee, detailed the formation of the committee. 

Allen wrote that GSC Housing and Community Affairs (HCA) has been involved in stipend recommendations “for nearly two decades.” However, in 2021, HCA formed an Advocacy Subcommittee “to serve the role of Stipend Committee” and “advocate for graduate students on other related topics.” 

Allen mentioned that the Advocacy Subcommittee is currently chaired by Denise Tellbach and himself, while the membership “is open to all interested graduate students.” 

Allen noted that the faculty and staff were involved “mostly later in the process” and that the staff and faculty “played an important advisory role and helped with the framing of the recommendations” while the “GSC conducted the analysis.”

Allen wrote that these were “consensus recommendations of the Stipend Committee” approved by the GSC Executive Committee. Input was taken from the entire GSC and graduate student organizations during the process. 

“Multiple important questions related to graduate support” are being addressed through these recommendations followed by focusing on fixing the “biggest gaps in support,” Allen wrote. Recommendations to adjust both the “standard stipend rate” and a “set of policies” based on “survey data, GSC member input, economic indicators, and stakeholder advice” are made most years.

While the survey data reveal “improved graduate student financial security and well-being” through the Stipend Committee, there is much “left to be done,” according to Allen. The committee wants the basic cost coverage to be “as encompassing as possible.” Some of the challenges include “rising costs, particularly for housing and childcare.” 

While “funding structures vary across departments and programs,” essential costs of living while working at MIT do not, Allen pointed out. The committee strives to ensure that graduate students have the liberty to make “important life decisions,” such as raising children, “without having to sacrifice degree progress or financial stability.”

The GSC and Office of the Vice Chancellor agreed to preserve “a living wage adjustment” since 2008; several agreements have been made recently, such as “major reductions” in PhD students on partial appointment, the creation of the Grant for Graduate Students with Children, and an active involvement to ensure complete U.S. government benefits to student veterans.

According to the presentation, the stipend recommendations stem from three factors: peer school analysis, living wage analysis and equity factors.

Peer school analysis calls for an “attractive funding package” while keeping the “research costs competitive.” This analysis reveals that Stanford stipends have grown “70% faster than MIT’s since 2015,” creating a $5,200 gap in “offer letter value.” Similar comparison by nominal wage with Berkeley, Harvard, and Columbia shows that “MIT remains behind peer institutions in high-cost cities.”

Living wage analysis reveals that MIT’s graduate benefits should cover “unavoidable costs” of working at MIT while maintaining or improving “purchasing power” over time. Although basic MIT support of 100% stipend covers unavoidable expenses of domestic, off-campus and international, on-campus students, much can be improved with respect to domestic parent graduate students in Westgate. 

While “departments can set doctoral RA/TA stipends” to a value “between 90 and 115% of the base rate,” it is observed that a 90% stipend does not cover “any student’s survival budget,” according to the presentation. 

“Adjusting for rent trend” reveals an improvement in MIT’s purchasing power since 2003, however, with “MIT losing ground to Stanford since 2018.” For campus transfers, “on-campus Stanford student has more income than an on-campus MIT student.”

Equity factors suggest that the stipend should assist those students who are “most disadvantaged” by the U.S. public policy. Delving further into the various equity dimensions, the widely different problems of “higher expenses” and “fewer options” for international students and students with dependents are studied. It is concluded that while “MIT cannot fix structural disadvantages,” the “harm done by them can be corrected.”

While “family costs have increased considerably” with the “main cost-driver” being “on-campus family rents,” there has not been an increase in stipends. Eight percent of MIT graduate families reportedly “often do not have enough to eat,” while 33% of them see “cost of living” among their “largest obstacles to academic progress.” 

Half of MIT graduate families saw “income fall short of expenses” and expected it to be short next year. Graduate Families Support Working Group recommends “centralization and increase of financial support for students with children.”

There are two grants specific to students with families: the family food grant and grant for graduate students with children 2020–2021. Both of these grants are in their final year. 

The two major recommendations of the Stipend Committee based on the analysis above are eliminating sub-100% stipends, and improving food security and family assistance by increasing case family assistance to at least $5,000. 

These recommendations can be achieved by ensuring a 4.5% increase in stipend “to avoid losing more ground to Staford” and also due to the fact that “at least 2.2% increase is needed to maintain current standard of living.”

The committee awaits further communication from MIT leadership on this matter over the coming weeks, and encourages anyone interested in advocacy to reach out to