Students should take their Time to Degree

The U of C should not charge fees to Ph.D. students in Advanced Residence.

By Joe Grim Feinberg

When U of C Ph.D. students advance past the fourth year of our programs, if we aren’t covered by any special funding, we must begin paying about $750 in tuition per quarter. Together with student activity fees ($49 per quarter) and “health and wellness” fees ($177 per quarter), our fees amount to more than $3,000 per school year. And if we include University-imposed insurance premiums, we pay nearly $5,000 annually out of pocket.

This is the case even if we don’t take classes or use any other University resources—and the figures have been rising faster than inflation. Meanwhile, most jobs available to us pay in the range of $1,000 to $3,000 per quarter, leaving many of us with yearly incomes that are barely sufficient to cover what we pay the University for the privilege of having our names on its books. And while it’s true that the University offers a partial fee remission during quarters when we find teaching jobs at the U of C, this only underscores the administration’s interest in extracting our cheap labor, effectively forcing us to buy the right to work for another employer in any given quarter. It’s only reasonable that we have complained, protested, circulated petitions, and formed an organization demanding (among other things) an end to the silly system of grad student fees. What is less reasonable is the administration’s response.

The U of C administration seems to be confused by what we meant when we asked for an end to fees. The administration felt compelled to set up a committee to address the issue, but instead of a “Committee on Advanced Residence Fees,” it set up a “Committee on Advanced Residence and Time to Degree.” It’s true, I’ll admit, that we were the first ones to raise the issue of “time to degree.” Since we earn low wages and pay high fees, we have to work more to make ends meet, and we work less on finishing our dissertations. The solution is simple: raise our wages and eliminate our fees. If there is any other reason that we might take longer to graduate, then with all due respect, it’s none of the administration’s business.

Instead of recognizing that administrative policy is the biggest obstacle to our “time to degree,” the administration seems to be under the impression that the problem lies with us, graduate students. I’ve heard administrators say that they’re very sorry to make us pay these fees, but without the fees we would lose our motivation to finish our degrees. It’s as if we had some innate antipathy to graduation and could only be motivated by punishment—as if we enjoy being grad students so much that we stick around just for the fun of it. We’re told it’s bad for our reputations to take too long to finish, bad for our careers. Very well, but we can handle that ourselves, thank you very much. Believe me: If we delay our graduation, we have good reasons for it. We might decide to have kids. Or we might get sick. Or we might just be writing a novel, or working at a decently paid job. What’s it to them? If I want to take time off without paying any fees, give me the time off. No questions asked.

It would be one thing if we were actually a drain on resources. As long as I’m taking classes or requesting interlibrary loans, I’ll acknowledge that I can give something in return. I can give back intellectual work by making progress toward my degree. I can give back teaching labor. And if I prefer not to do either of those, I can pay some fee commensurate with the services that I actually receive (like the $30 per quarter for library privileges that recent alumni pay, though this is already too high). But in the present system, our use of resources is completely incidental. We have to pay even if we get nothing in return at all, and we’re treated like immature freeloaders if we complain. Please stop worrying about not getting your money’s worth from me, and rest assured: I’ll take exactly one Ph.D.’s worth of benefit from the University—and I’ll contribute one Ph.D., too.

How long will it take? It’s none of the administration’s business.

Joe Grim Feinberg is a Ph.D. student in anthropology. He is a member of Graduate Students United.