I’m a graduate student at the University. Quick, how much money did I make last year?

That doesn’t sound like a hard question. Especially during tax season — the University actually fills out a form for me saying what my total earnings as an employee were. According to my W-2, I earned a little more than $24,000 for the entire year. This sounds about right. I worked as a graduate student research assistant for the entire calendar year and was paid as if I were a graduate student instructor with a standard .50 appointment.

Of course, nothing is so straightforward. Not in a Graduate Employees’ Organization contract year. A new contract will be signed in a month or so, in which the administration will concede on no-brainer issues like improving accommodations for disabled GSIs — which was finally accepted in principle just two weeks ago — and with any luck will agree to a small pay increase that just barely keeps pace with inflation. Wages are usually the most controversial topic among the wider University community. Judging from some of the remarks that readers have left in the comment sections for The Michigan Daily’s coverage of the negotiations, asking for a raise is an act of unmitigated gall, particularly in the prevailing economic climate.

That’s an odd position to take when you consider what the University budget actually looks like. The campus employs about 1,800 GSIs a semester. GSIs received about $8,500 per semester in the 2009-2010 academic year that comes out to a total of $28 million in GSI salary. That probably sounds like a lot of money until you consider that the University’s total revenue from tuition and state support alone, which over the same period of time was $1.2 billion. GSIs, who are responsible for about 25 percent of in-class instruction and a still larger share of grading, represent only 2 percent of the operating budget. It’s an incredibly modest amount to put toward the core educational mission of the University.

Of course, GSIs’ actual take-home pay is only one piece of the puzzle. They also get tuition waivers, which are nominally valued at $36,000 per year. This allows some to claim that my annual income is actually $60,000. The median household in the United States, by comparison, makes about $50,000 per year. From the perspective of undergraduates who are paying their own way through school, that looks like an embarrassment of riches. But the truth is a little more complicated.

Unlike medical or law students, doctoral students aren’t likely to see their tuition payments turn into a high-paying job when they finish their program. Starting salaries as an assistant professor in many fields are on the order of $50,000 a year. That, needless to say, is still a lot of money, but it would pale in comparison to five (or six, or seven) years of tuition incurred in the process. I don’t bring this up in order to cry poverty — no one goes into academic work strictly for the money, so it’s not like any of this is a surprise per se — but rather to point out that the labor economics of this trade-off are pretty simple: If GSIs weren’t granted a tuition waiver, it wouldn’t make sense for anyone to be a GSI. This is especially true at a leading institution like the University, whose graduate students are even more likely than most to have more lucrative career options.

And the other implications are straightforward: In the absence of tuition waivers, the University would either have to deal with a dramatic decline in graduate student quality — and along with it a corresponding collapse in the quality of undergraduate education — or spend even more money on hiring lecturers and professors to make up the difference. Neither of those are attractive alternatives from the point of view of the undergraduate students whose tuition payments are footing such a large share of the bill for the University’s operation in the first place, which is why it’s so mystifying that the opinions of students (and alumni) on the GEO are commonly so split. Whether or not you think GSIs are overpaid by some other measure, the GEO contract structure is a pretty good bargain for students and Michigan taxpayers when you consider the alternative of hiring anyone else to do the same work.

Which is all just to establish that graduate student salaries are exactly what our W-2s say they are. No more, no less. And I can’t say I’ll feel guilty if GSI salaries climb from 2.2 percent to 2.3 percent of the University’s total outlay either.

Neill Mohammad can be reached at neilla@umich.edu.

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