Earlier this week, the Student Government Assembly (made up of the College and Graduate Councils) passed its budget for the 2015–2016 academic year. While in many ways its prioritization of the graduate students who constitute two-thirds of our campus represents a step forward, it’s useful for us to contextualize this change within the broader institutional patterns of the last decade.
Student Government has a $2.2 million budget, funded by a “Student Activities Fee” (SAF), which is embedded within the Student Life Fee (SLF) paid by each enrolled student—graduate and undergraduate—at UChicago. For graduate students, this student activities fee represents about 20 percent of each student’s individual SLF—however, since half of this gets sent directly to each student’s school or division, this leaves 10 percent of the SLF for the SAF central fund. In comparison, for undergrads, about 24 percent of each individual SLF gets directed to this central fund. However, since graduate students vastly outnumber undergraduate students, they end up contributing about half of the total SAF budget. SG is ultimately responsible for allocating approximately 90 percent of this central fund.
As they have historically stood, from funding RSOs to supporting academic teams, the Major Activities Board, and club sports, the financial obligations of Student Government skew heavily toward supporting students in the College. In all, only about 12 percent of our budget goes to graduate students. This means that graduate students essentially subsidize undergraduate student life, and this is by no means an accident. University administration has long pressured SG to meet needs on the undergraduate side without providing them with the resources necessary to fairly and equally support graduate students. Years of ineffective leadership on the side of SG paired with weak engagement with graduate students (even those serving on the Graduate Council) did nothing to call attention to this problem.
Now, things are different. There is a near consensus within SG on the seriousness of the structural imbalance that exists between graduate and undergraduate student support. Years of work by the outgoing chair (Anthony Martinez) have built the Graduate Council up into a strong and effective advocate for students at UChicago. Renewed interest in how we spend our money has generated the energy for reforms and budgetary audits.
At the end of the day, no matter how well we spend the money we currently have, the only way we can seriously begin to move the needle on graduate student support is through a larger budget. The University should not expect graduate students to support undergraduate student life. The vast majority of the Student Life Fee goes toward funding health and wellness services that ought to be provided for through tuition, which would free up funds to increase support for groups like academic teams and reduce the need for small and mid-sized RSOs to fundraise for each event they host. This isn’t an undergraduate versus graduate issue. We’re stronger together, and that’s precisely how we should push to have more resources directed to support all students, graduate and undergraduate.
Tyler Kissinger is a third-year in the College majoring in public policy and is the president of Student Government.