LAS CRUCES – Graduate student workers at New Mexico State University and their supporters rallied in front of the university’s administration complex Thursday to demand administrators meet with union leaders to discuss immediate relief from tuition costs.
The university employs about 900 graduate students as teaching and research assistants, paying them a minimum grant of $18,435. The employees, who also attend classes in working toward their graduate degrees, pay the university about $6,189 in tuition and fees, according to report compiled by NMSU Graduate Workers United.
“It’s a problem we have to pay so much of our salaries to cover tuition costs,” said Bryson Stemock, an NMSU graduate research assistant.
The NMSU Graduate Workers United report states 80 percent of the university’s peer institutions — including the University of New Mexico — provide full or partial tuition coverage for graduate employees.
Because NMSU doesn’t include some sort of tuition coverage, it’s not as attractive an option for graduate assistants, the union and its supporters argue. And if NMSU is losing out on some of the most qualified graduate assistants, the institution’s undergraduate instruction and research will suffer, they said.
“I’m really dependent on having a good teaching assistant,” said Jamie Bronstein, a government professor at the university and vice chair of the faculty senate. “Without that person, I would have to decrease the rigor of my classes, I would have to give NMSU undergraduates a less good education than I can give them right now.”
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Graduate student workers have been working for years to get some tuition coverage and their efforts led them to form a union, which was formally certified by the New Mexico Public Employee Labor Relations Board in May.
Union leaders and supporters rallied in front of Hadley Hall on the NMSU main campus on Thursday. After speeches both by students and faculty, the group walked inside the complex and delivered a petition containing concerns and possible solutions to NMSU Chancellor Dan Arvizu’s office.
“This petition is here to show that we’re still here, there’s plenty of us and we’re very upset,” Stemock said.
The union report states that the university would lose $5.4 million — or a 1.35% drop in overall revenue — if it covered tuition and fees for all graduate workers.
The report identified $11 million in surplus unrestricted funds in the university’s budget, which could be used to balance the ledger if NMSU provided tuition coverage.
NMSU spokesperson Justin Bannister said university leaders are looking forward to further negotiations with union leaders.
“They (graduation workers) have come to make their voices heard; they’ve been heard. The university leaders have heard what these graduate workers have said and that’s why we look forward to this negotiation process.” Banister said.
Many at the rally identified rising health insurance costs as a big concern for graduate student workers who already must remit one-third of their salary back to the university.
Tuition coverage would mean some financial freedom, said Jessica Afful Tuleassi, an NMSU graduate student worker from Ghana. Several union supporters noted that there are additional challenges for international students, who because of visa restrictions have limited opportunities to earn money.
“All graduate workers and teaching assistants really love what they do, we just want something that will keep us stable,” Tuleassi said.
Annya Loya is a general assignment reporter and can be reached at [email protected] or @annyaloya on Twitter.