What is a tuition differential?

It’s not tuition. It’s not a fee. It’s an insidious erosion of public education, which is the basis of an informed citizenry and a thriving democracy, not to mention the cornerstone for a viable workforce necessary for a healthy economy.

First the basics: tuition differentials (TDs) at UIC are charged to undergraduate and graduate students in addition to the base tuition rate. TDs are implemented according to degree program—for instance, a full-time MA student in Art History pays $1,808 per semester, a full-time MA student in Healthcare Administration pays $5,046 per semester. Although it is true that budget cuts at the state level have negatively affected the university, UIC has chosen to pass those costs on to its students, making it increasingly difficult for those in the community it serves to afford a college degree.
TDs, because they are assessed by a department or college in concert with the Board of Trustees, are implemented with no input or oversight—unlike all other student fees that go before the Campus Fee Committee, there is no venue for students to express their concerns. Effectively, they are a means for the university to unilaterally increase the cost of education without having to technically increase tuition.

Departments use TDs to raise funds for basic operating costs after budget cuts at the state level. Historically, TDs have been justified to supplement programs with higher costs, such as those that require expensive lab equipment. However, more recently, TDs have been implemented where no apparent special costs are associated with the implementation of the program—this is the case in my department, Art History, a humanities discipline with little infrastructure required. Considering the cuts to education funding impacted by the recent recession, it is not surprising that UIC is looking to raise funds in any way it can. However, increasing fees to sustain basic operating budgets creates a disproportionate burden on students. The increased availability of student loans coupled with the perceived (though increasingly diminishing) value of a college degree has led the University to see its students as their main source of revenue—a vision in contradiction with the ethic of public education as a leg up for the least advantaged. Fundamentally, it represents a shift in public education, and the public sector more broadly, that moves away from the promise of the opportunity of education for all—especially those who have historically had the least access to education.

For graduate employees at UIC, the situation is more complex. To be eligible for employment, a graduate student must be enrolled for 8 credit hours. TDs tends to be proportional to the hours the student is enrolled—a full time student pays more than a student taking one course. (For example, a graduate student in Art History who takes 12 or more credit hours must pay $1,808 per semester; students enrolled for under six hours pays $603. For the full schedule of graduate student tuition differentials, click here.) So for many grad employees, paying a TD is part of the condition of employment. Grad employees who pay a TD earn wages for the work they do teaching classes and in support positions in administrative offices, and then often owe a substantial percentage of those wages back to the University.

In my department, every graduate student is assessed a TD. When I enrolled as a MA student in 2007, the TD for a full time student was $1,095 a semester. I am now a PhD student, and the tuition differential for my program is $1,808, a 65% increase. (Disclaimer: this year TAs in my department received a scholarship, though GAs are still required to pay the TD.) At UIC, the average increase in TDs from the 2009-10 to the 2010-11 school year was $500. Continuing students are required to pay the TD increases, even if they initially enrolled when the TD was lower. This means that enrolling in a degree program that on average requires six or seven years to complete carries great risk, possibly resulting in students dropping out of a program after spending years working towards their degree, teaching classes at the University for less than a living wage, and paying thousands in fees and TDs.

The current minimum wage for GAs and TAs at UIC working a 20 hours per week for 9 months, according the union contract, is $15,565. Subtract from those low wages the fees and TD for my program, and the net income of a graduate student is $10,175 per year—who can live on that in Chicago? According to the University’s own estimate this figure is approximately $8,000 dollars less than the cost of living in Chicago. There is an understanding among my colleagues that off-campus employment, in addition to full time course load and a 20 hour a week assistantship on campus, is necessary but risky. We are rightly concerned that additional employment will be perceived as a lack of commitment to our courses, or to scholarship and will be grounds for losing our funding. But at the end of day, we have to pay our rent and buy food.

The majority of the faculty in my department are against the TDs assessed to their students, and have expressed as much in a letter of solidarity during the GEO contract negotiations. They rightly understand the enormous financial burden that it places on their students—especially since our field, perhaps more than others in the humanities, struggles to reproduce itself with promising jobs, even for its brightest graduates. And even more so, it is difficult to recruit promising students to such a costly program.

TDs are insidious because they represent the erosion of public education, the building blocks of an informed and employable citizenry, a backing off of the promise that higher education should be available to all. In the narrowest sense, for me and my colleagues, the TD reminds us that the humanities are on their way out, that the efficient, corporate driven model of life today has no room for critical thinking or visual literacy, much less musings on aesthetics and culture. For graduate students in every department at UIC, the TD that I pay as an Art History student should be a warning: despite the illusion of oversight that the Board of Trustees represents, one day every student on campus will pay a TD, and we will be told to be grateful that we were even accepted, that we have a chance to earn a degree that may lead to employment (though it likely will not). TDs are insidious because they will bankrupt us and destroy the reputation of our school, but even more so, they will bankrupt public education.

Marissa Baker
Phd, Art History

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