Working for Justice

The Issues of Graduate Student Parents

Posted January 6th, 2016 by in Employment Discrimination.

My colleague, Sara, wrote last month about D.C.’s Universal Paid Leave Act, which would entitle workers to 16 weeks of paid leave for the birth of a child or another qualifying event. It’s a step in the right direction, but we’re still a long way from ensuring that working parents have all of the protections that they deserve.

A good friend recently directed me to the difficulties faced by one particular subset of working parents: graduate students. You can find my earlier post about the in-between role that graduate students play here. To summarize, universities depend on graduate students to carry a huge part of the teaching workload. But when it comes to providing the authority, protections, and benefits associated with fulltime employment, they often fall short.

Three Harvard graduate students have written an excellent piece for The Crimson detailing their struggles. They point out that meager wages, high healthcare costs, skyrocketing childcare costs, and scrooge-like leave policies make parenting pretty darn difficult.

My friend is currently experiencing similar issues at Columbia. As he puts it, Columbia recognizes that you can’t really be a full-time graduate student and a parent at the same time, so it offers graduate students time off from teaching responsibilities. A start, I suppose. But that’s about where it stops.

Here’s what it doesn’t do: Columbia does not offer graduate student parents additional time and funding to finish their degrees. Columbia only guarantees graduate students five years of funding to finish their PhDs, and it limits them to receiving seven years of funding. That is, after seven years, if you’re a graduate student, you cannot even apply for more money from the Graduate School, including monies awarded on a competitive, merit basis. This requirement is not waivable and not negotiable. As a result many PhD candidates find themselves dependent on their spouses or partners for support. True, few people marry graduate students for the money…but seriously. And even, without child care responsibilities, many history graduate students take seven or even eight years to finish their PhDs, making it virtually impossible to both have a kid and finish on time.

Another major issue involves healthcare coverage. As my earlier post explained, Columbia, which is facing unionization efforts, makes every effort to point out that its graduate students are students, and not employees. Because graduate students are not employees, Columbia says, it does not have to provide COBRA coverage. This means that students who are between jobs or teaching gigs often have to pay thousands of dollars for health insurance. And that’s not even considering the expense of insuring one’s child. My friend pays around $2,000 per year to insure his child (that’s his half, and the Graduate School pays the other half). That’s a huge portion of one’s income on a graduate stipend— Columbia’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences pays graduate students $26,286 per year.

The University falls similarly far short when it comes to child care. Columbia offers minimal assistance in helping parents get spots in New York’s famously competitive daycares. And even if you do get in, you still have to pay for it. Columbia recently trumpeted that, in 2015, it doubled its child care subsidy for graduate parents—from $1,000 to $2,000 per year. But as Columbia’s downtown neighbor, NYU, points out, “Costs for infant and toddler care averages $1,800/month in NYC.” In other words, they’re willing to give you a tiny fraction of what everyone knows you need.

But surely you can just hang out at home with your child, you say. Wrong again. Columbia limits graduate students to seven years of housing eligibility. So once you tick over that, you’re thrown to the wolves of the New York real estate market. Trust me when I say that it’s not fun.

Columbia is a rich institution in an even richer city. At the end of the day, Columbia seems to expect that parents will toil in the shadows. True, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences is only one component of the University, and hardly the richest one. But surely Columbia can do more. It should.

Russell Kornblith

Russell Kornblith

Russell Kornblith is the New York Managing Partner who works on both qui tam / whistleblower cases and on discrimination cases. Learn More

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