The University of Montana pays its research and teaching assistants significantly less on average than its competitors, according to a recent survey.
The University of Montana’s TA and RA base pay averaged about $10,300 less than national averages, according to data from 25 graduate programs on campus.
Gray O’Reilly, a TA pursuing a master’s degree in environmental philosophy, said he has to supplement his income by freelancing as a graphic designer and personal trainer.
“I could not survive on the stipend alone,” O’Reilly said. “UM was my top choice, but money was a factor and will always be a factor when it comes to these things.”
O’Reilly said programs at UM may be losing graduate students to other universities that pay more.
This spring, graduate students composed about a quarter of UM enrollment, according to census data. Since spring 2016, the University’s graduate enrollment has increased from nearly 2,000 to more than 2,500, even as total enrollment has continued to decline.
UM’s graduate school sent out a survey to gauge the state of graduate education last September, to which 49 out of 57 program directors responded, according to its report. It had conducted a similar survey in 2018, but did not get as many responses.
Programs can supplement salaries with money from sources like grants, but base salaries have remained at $9,000 for master’s students and $14,800 for doctoral students for more than 20 years, according to the survey. During that time, these salaries have lost at least $4,800 and $8,000 respectively in buying power due to inflation.
Health insurance was also an issue for programs, according to the survey. The Division of Biological Sciences reported that almost all competitors surveyed covered all or part of health insurance and fees.
Hallee Kansman is a TA pursuing a master’s degree in public administration and attending law school. She said she hasn’t had a bad experience, but UM should help its student body.
“Personally, it’s affected me because my bill is incredibly high,” Kansman said. “I made a conscious decision to come to law school here, but I also had hopes that I would be financially supported in different ways.”
Grad students at Montana State University are dealing with similar issues, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle reported last July. Students unionized to increase wages and obtain better health insurance. The Graduate Employee Organization was officially recognized in 2011 and represents at least 600 TAs and RAs at MSU, according to its website.
Kansman, O’Reilly and ASUM Senator Cierra Anderson are grad students on UM’s Graduate Council. They are drafting a letter advocating an increase in TA and RA salaries, and Anderson said the trio plans to introduce a resolution to the ASUM Senate after spring break.
Members of Grad Council said they were not sure about UM’s procedures for raising salaries.
Base salary increases would end up being part of the budgeting process, and UM’s president ultimately decides on them, said Ashby Kinch, associate dean of the graduate school, in an email. He said most grad students do not receive TA or RA funding.
Anderson said current base salaries are detrimental because of the work expected from grad students. She said raising pay would reduce the strain on them and make the University more competitive.
“In my opinion, if they want to continue to recruit graduate students at a competitive rate and get the best of the best, then they need to increase the TA and RA salaries,” Anderson said. “We’re all broke college students. That doesn’t change once you go from undergrad to grad, or to a professional degree.”