Fixing Fees at the U of C: Beyond the Grade Divide

Our very own Student Government president Tyler Kissinger has written an excellent op-ed that explains why the latest SG budget, passed for the upcoming academic year, is a big step in the right direction. After describing how the different fees levied on grads and undergrads are used to fund Student Government, he points out that as a result of this fee structure,

graduate students essentially subsidize undergraduate student life, and this is by no means an accident. University administration has long pressured SG to meet needs on the undergraduate side without providing them with the resources necessary to fairly and equally support graduate students. Years of ineffective leadership on the side of SG paired with weak engagement with graduate students (even those serving on the Graduate Council) did nothing to call attention to this problem.

Now, things are different. There is a near consensus within SG on the seriousness of the structural imbalance that exists between graduate and undergraduate student support. Years of work by the outgoing chair (Anthony Martinez) have built the Graduate Council up into a strong and effective advocate for students at UChicago. Renewed interest in how we spend our money has generated the energy for reforms and budgetary audits.

This is great news, and it’s exactly the reason why Graduate Students United has put so much energy into Student Government elections over the past three years. We’re all about reforms and audits, not to mention more direct student involvement in university decision-making, and it looks like out strategy of engagement with Student Government is reaping dividends. Here’s how Tyler ends his post:

The University should not expect graduate students to support undergraduate student life. The vast majority of the Student Life Fee goes toward funding health and wellness services that ought to be provided for through tuition, which would free up funds to increase support for groups like academic teams and reduce the need for small and mid-sized RSOs to fundraise for each event they host. This isn’t an undergraduate versus graduate issue. We’re stronger together, and that’s precisely how we should push to have more resources directed to support all students, graduate and undergraduate.

That sounds pretty good as far as it goes, but it leaves us with plenty of questions about how the decisions about reforming these fees will get made. Initial reactions from GSU members were enthusiastic, as in this response from a GSU member we’ll call her the Kangaroo:

To me it shows that there is a campus-wide discourse developing around fees, and that someone who has a lot of experience interacting with the administration is also strongly questioning the way administrators think about graduate student compensation and costs.

Another GSU member (we’ll call her the Shark) couldn’t resist adding,

Of course the problem is not merely one of how the SLF fees are allocated and distributed. The problem is a structural one where the administration creates this illusion of scarcity and leaves the students to quibble about cents and dimes, drawing attention away from the more fundamental issue of why are these funds coming out of students’ pockets in the first place? The fees are compulsory and there is some kind of inherently divisive but democratic veneer painted onto it where students ostensibly get to choose where it goes, when there isn’t much of a choice really, or at the very least it is a very limited choice.

That’s the Shark’s take. What’s your take? What’s the best way to reform fees so that they enrich student life without driving up the cost of our education? Have your say on our Facebook page or tweet at us @uchicagogsu.