After crashing his bike, Suman Gunin never regained his arm’s full range of motion and still feels pain.
An Indian doctoral student studying neuroscience at LSU, he cannot afford the recommended physical therapy on the $15,000 annual stipend he receives for his teaching and research responsibilities. Gunin paid more than $300 for initial visits after the accident and is anxiously awaiting the bill for his x-rays and treatment.
LSU graduate students receive a minimum stipend of approximately $11,000 to support themselves for the year, although a lucky few earn up to $27,000. After fees and living expenses, many have little to spend on health care, which the university does not provide, unlike many top research institutions.
These workers, who are preparing for their doctorate or master’s degree, spend about half of their working time teaching first-year courses, helping with research and performing administrative tasks.
After mandatory tuition totaling up to $2,000 per semester, graduate assistants budget carefully to pay for rent and food. According Rent a cafethe average rent in Baton Rouge is $1,169 for a one-bedroom apartment.
As graduates consider purchasing health insurance in the private market, the $3,000 it costs for LSU’s student health insurance plan has long been spent on more pressing needs such as housing, food and transportation.
International students are required to have health insurance. Due to financial constraints, many opt for international student plans which cost between $31 to $75 per month. Students say the plans cover very little of their medical costs.
According to the department, LSU graduate assistants are prohibited—or at least strongly discouraged—from working outside the department. International graduate students are legally prohibited from working outside or risk violating their visas, which can result in deportation or jail time.
Some international students depend on health care from their home country.
Daleth Del Salto, an international student pursuing a doctorate in biology at LSU, was forced to have drugs shipped from overseas after learning her prescription was not valid in the United States. Her alternative was to get re-diagnosed, a multiple-dating process she said she couldn’t afford. Del Salto did not disclose his medical condition.
Domestic students are also struggling.
Geography graduate assistant Adam Dohrenwend said he couldn’t afford $1,000 to have his wisdom teeth extracted out of his $15,000 allowance. A first-generation graduate, he raised concerns about the lack of affordable health care for graduate students that is holding back workers from higher education at an LSU town hall meeting on the issue.
“Education isn’t supposed to be for people with money and people whose parents have money, people whose parents wear suits to work, is it?” said Dohrenwend. “Students whose families…get their hands dirty…first-generation, lower-working-class students should be able to get an education.”
Victoria Rittell, a doctoral candidate in chemistry, said she was constantly racking up medical bills for her chronic health conditions and currently had about $3,000 in unpaid medical debt. She receives a stipend of $25,000, an amount larger than most assistants.
“If I added one more bill, I don’t know if I would be able to pay my medical bills,” Rittell said.
Rittell compared her experience to that of her boyfriend, a graduate assistant at the University of Tennessee, where his insurance even covers off-campus specialists.
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Graduate assistants who advocate for better health care point out that this is a workforce issue, not just a student issue. They are considered an essential part of the university workforce. LSU employee 1,298 graduate assistants in 2020, the latest data available. Added to a full-time faculty count of 1,653 in 2021, graduate assistants make up 44% of the university’s academic workforce.
While graduate assistants pay $3,000 for an individual health care plan, full-time faculty pay about $2,400 in bonuses. In 2019, according to the most recent data available, the average salary for LSU faculty was $92,875.
Unequal treatment frustrates many graduate workers.
“I’m an employee when you think I should be an employee,” Rebecca Bock, a sociology doctoral student, told City Hall. “I’m not offered any benefits and then told I can’t go out and find a job that would give me benefits. So I’m sitting here trying to figure out if I can afford services that allow me to be a productive faculty member or a productive student, depending on how you all want to define me.
Despite being told not to work outside of their departments, some graduate students take on extra jobs to get health care and help cover expenses. Some expressed that if they had known the financial realities of working and studying at LSU, they might have gone elsewhere.
Bock said she was even considering transferring to Loyola University in New Orleans, or just getting a master’s degree and finishing her doctorate. later.
“That seems like the best option unless LSU does something substantially impressive in the immediate future,” Bock said.
MJS administrators discuss changes to graduate pay. LSU Provost Roy Haggerty and Vice Provost for Graduate Studies James Spencer sent a memo to faculty and graduate students in October expressing support for increasing the university’s minimum postgraduate stipend to $23,000.
Spencer told students at City Hall that he was advocating for a graduate assistant health insurance waiver that would cover a large portion of graduate assistant health expenses.
“That’s basically what a lot of these SEC institutions do, which is we cover the cost of health insurance and you’ll never see a bill,” Spencer said.