GSC demands affordability improvements from the University

Feb. 26, 2023, 11:17 p.m.

The Graduate Student Council (GSC) passed a unanimous vote of no confidence in the University on Feb. 14, following months of frustration with the University administration’s response to its affordability advocacy.

The next day, the GSC released a petition detailing its demands to the University. The demands include raising the 2023-24 graduate salaries by 10%, publicly reporting all information and calculations used to determine the minimum salary adjustment for the 23-24 academic year, reinstating the Shopping Express and Marguerite N and O lines, and creating a permanent graduate student advisory position.

These actions came after the GSC published an op-ed in The Daily on Feb. 9 detailing the University’s repeated lack of collaboration and communication with the GSC on affordability issues. 

The GSC’s affordability advocacy

Affordability has long been an issue for many Stanford graduate students, who have faced challenges in securing housing, childcare and other goods and services. However, affordability has worsened in recent years, in part due to the effects of record-high inflation

When the 2022-23 GSC was sworn in, students on the council sought to improve graduate student affordability. 

“We had a decent amount of data that informed us that graduate students are struggling with campus affordability,” said Kirsten Jackson, GSC diversity and advocacy chair and third-year education Ph.D. student. She added that the GSC sent out a survey over the summer of 2022 to obtain this data on affordability.

The GSC unanimously approved its Bill on Affordability last October. The bill was based on the summer survey and highlighted graduate student affordability challenges, such as the high costs of housing and healthcare. 

According to the bill, over the last decade, many graduate students’ incomes have fallen into the “very low” category, which the bill defines as paying 45% or more of income towards rent. The bill also reported that 78% of students that filled out the survey believed that they could not meet the minimum standards for financial well-being. 

University spokesperson Stett Holbrook wrote to The Daily in an email that “We absolutely recognize that some students may encounter additional financial needs beyond those of the average student over the course of the year and to assist we offer several grant programs including graduate family grants, emergency grants and grants for health care.”

However, Emily Schell, a fifth-year Ph.D. student in the Graduate School of Education studying developmental and psychological sciences, said that administration was not moved to act even when graduate students were put in dire financial circumstances after the effects of COVID-19.

The GSC sent the data from its survey, as well as its bill, to the University at the beginning of the 2022 academic year, according to Schell. She said that the University was concerned that the GSC’s survey wasn’t representative enough of the graduate population — the survey had sampled around 250 graduate students.

Instead, Schell said, the University told the GSC in the fall that it was going to allow Institutional Research & Decision Support (IR&DS) to conduct a separate survey. The survey, released in November and filled out by graduate and undergraduate students, was purportedly meant to help the University better understand student expenses.

Holbrook wrote that “For the 2024 academic year, the recent IR&DS expenses survey data informed the costs associated with personal expenses, food and transportation, and were benchmarked against the Consumer Price Index. Data provided by R&DE determined the portion of the COA allocated for rent and reflect on- and off-campus Stanford housing. These figures are determined by R&DE and are provided at below-market rates.”

Tensions between the University administration and the GSC reached a peak after the graduate student base stipend for the 2023-24 academic year was revealed to the GSC late on Feb. 1 — after others in the University, including faculty, administration and the incoming 2023-2024 graduate students, had received it, according to Schell.

Food, transportation and a growing cost of living

GSC member, Representative to the Faculty Senate and fourth-year chemistry Ph.D. student Lawrence Berg said that graduate student wage adjustments don’t reflect inflation, contributing to the expensive cost of living and studying at Stanford. 

Berg said that in his three years at Stanford, the annual cost-of-living adjustments have stayed below 3% “even while we see inflation increases.” The University recently increased undergraduate tuition by 7% due to “the effects of high inflation on the cost of university operations.” 

“This year, the Provost and the Vice Provost of Graduate Education have said that they’re going to do a cost of living adjustment of 4.9%,” Berg said, “and that does not keep track with the 8.2% inflation that we’ve seen.” He said that graduate students were essentially taking a “pay cut” because of this. 

In addition to the high cost of living, many graduate students experience food insecurity, exacerbated by the lack of access to transportation. At Stanford’s on-campus grocery market, Munger Market, prices have increased sharply in previous months with many items there being marked up over 50% since last Spring. 

In a previous statement to The Daily, Jocelyn Breeland ’81, the chief officer for strategic communications and marketing for R&DE, explained the cause of the rise in prices. Student expenses were considered, according to Breeland, but there were other factors like inflation, labor pressures, and supply chain issues that were considered as well, leading to the rise in prices. 

Pre-COVID-19, graduate students who were unable to afford the price of groceries on campus could take the Shopping Express or the N and O Marguerite lines to nearby grocery stores. The Shopping Express was a series of Marguerite lines that traveled to grocery stores on the weekdays and weekends, allowing students to travel to places like Walmart to buy their groceries. 

However, students no longer have access to these lines, which have been discontinued. 

In a separate statement addressing the reinstatement of the lines, Holbrook wrote that “we understand the importance of the Marguerite shuttle and a proposal to reinstate some of the shopping express service is currently under consideration. In the meantime, students who need transportation when the Marguerite is not in operation can call 5-SURE at 650.725.SURE.”

Guillem Megias Homar, a first-year aeronautics and astronautics engineering Ph.D. student, said, “Those students with families — basically, the most vulnerable students — are certainly struggling. You can see that because they come to the food pantry.”

The food pantry is offered once a month, allowing graduate students to access food that they may not otherwise have the time or money to buy. The University did not directly comment on the issue of food insecurity. 

Without access to the Shopping Express, graduate students who don’t have cars and don’t have time to take the Marguerite to off-campus grocery stores on weekdays must pay a premium for groceries on campus or turn to the food pantry. According to Homar, this makes transportation an affordability issue, as well. 

Biking to Trader Joe’s “because there’s no other transportation to go to different grocery stores” also increases graduate students’ stress, Homar said. He added that it’s not practical for students to bike to grocery stores and back while carrying large grocery bags.

The number of graduate students depending on the food pantry has increased lately, according to Homar, leading to longer wait times.

Berg and Elizabeth Park, GSC Secretary and third-year chemistry Ph.D. student, have made efforts to work with Associate Vice Provost of Graduate Education Liz Silva on transportation issues. However, they remain frustrated with the administration’s lack of action regarding transportation issues. 

Silva did not respond to a request for a comment from The Daily. 

The GSC has advocated since last fall for the reinstatement of the N and O Marguerite lines.

The N and O lines ran to the San Antonio Shopping Center and Palo Alto Transit Center on the weekend, enabling students to travel to off-campus grocery stores. They also ran late at night, providing both undergrads and grad students a safe transportation option. 

However, Schell said that the administration said it would be willing to entertain the return of the Shopping Express for a two-day pilot program. Schell said this was very frustrating for her.

“To be met with [a] half-measure shows that they are still not taking the student concerns or student leadership seriously,” Schell said. 

In addition to the lack of convenient Marguerite lines, the CalTrain Go Pass program for Stanford graduate students is ending this academic year. The Go Pass provided graduate students with unlimited and subsidized travel on the CalTrain between all zones.

“[The Go Pass was] something that I wanted to use in the future with my partner,” said Park, who was planning to move off-campus to live with her partner in San Francisco, where her partner works. “I thought I was going to have the Go Pass option to subsidize that cost, but now I have to factor that cost into my travel.”

In the face of these challenges, the University has made efforts to alleviate the financial burden on graduate students. According to Holbrook, the university’s “ Affordability Task Force recently adopted recommendations [including a] 12-month funding for graduate students, expanded supplemental need-based support and 100 percent coverage of the Cardinal Care health insurance premium for doctoral students.” 

Holbrook continued, “The cost of attendance (COA) is calculated using the most current data available; the minimum assistantship in turn is set to at least meet the COA,” adding that while the assistantship compensation is announced before the cost of attendance calculations are finalized, the “salient” components of the calculations are factored into the compensation.

Biosciences Affordability Group advocacy

The Biosciences Affordability Group has also been advocating for graduate student affordability improvements since COVID-19 exacerbated affordability issues. 

The group conducted its own survey to reveal the financial burdens and stressors many biosciences graduate students experience, before learning that the University was already having the IR&DS conduct the expenses survey.

According to group member Charlotte Herber, a fifth-year M.D.-Ph.D. student and a third-year in the neuroscience program, the group requested that the administration include a graduate student representative in the process of setting the 2023-24 graduate student stipend. 

After returning from winter break, however, the group learned in an email obtained by The Daily from Vice Provost for Graduate Education and Postdoctoral Affairs Stacey Bent that the University had already set the stipend, despite having previously expressed its commitment to having a data-informed and student-inclusive RA-ship compensation-setting process, according to Herber. 

Herber said she believes that there was either severe miscommunication or an attempt to mislead student organizers. She said she uncovered more contradictions in the communication from University administration after discussing these issues with the GSC. 

Emails between members of the Biosciences Affordability Group and University administration obtained by The Daily show some contradictions in the administration’s communications regarding the survey.

In a Dec. 5 email, School of Medicine Dean Lloyd Minor wrote that the University recognized that “spending patterns have changed significantly for many since the minimum assistantship level was set for this academic year.” Minor wrote that IR&DS had issued the expenses survey “in consultation with the Graduate Student Council,” and that “data from the responses will inform the next academic year’s minimum assistantship level and will inform adjustments for inflation.” 

In a Jan. 6 email, the Biosciences Affordability Group asked the University to “[share] the aggregated, anonymous results of the Stanford IR&DS survey as soon as they are available” and “[include] one or more student representatives in the process that sets next academic year’s minimum assistantship level.” Bent responded on Jan. 16 that “Analysis [of the IR&DS data] will take another several weeks and we continue to apprise the GSC leadership of the progress.”

However, on Feb. 1, Bent wrote that the minimum assistantship rates had already been set for the 2023-24 academic year and that the “[Vice Provost for Graduate Education] forwards proposals to the budget group and the provost in December and the Provost makes a decision in mid-January.”

Members of both the Biosciences Affordability Group and the GSC said that the emails led them to believe that the University would use the IR&DS survey results to help determine the minimum assistantship rate for the upcoming academic year. They note the contradiction between Bent’s Jan. 16 communication that survey analysis was not yet complete and the Feb. 1 communication that the VPGE had forwarded the rate proposals in December.

In addition, in the Jan. 16 email, Bent mentioned considering including student representatives in the process, even though they had already sent the rate proposals. 

Herber said that the Biosciences Affordability Group is now trying to clarify, on record, these contradictions.

“There’s no way for us to leave this alone, or back down and wait another 18 months for a solution to be provided to us when we know that our colleagues, our fellow student workers, are struggling to eat, struggling to get basic health care, struggling to care for their children and other dependents, struggling to maintain their mental health which is strongly linked to their financial wellness,” Herber said. 

In an email, Bent addressed the GSC’s and the Biosciences Affordability Group’s claims of miscommunication surrounding the usage of the expenses survey. 

“I also want to clarify that the university did use the IR&DS student expenses survey data to inform the minimum assistantship,” Bent wrote. “Self-reported expense data from the survey on categories including food, transportation, personal, and books were provided to the Financial Aid Office in December and used in combination with CPI to calculate the cost of attendance (COA).”

Bent added that there will be more analysis of the survey data, particularly the qualitative questions, since that would require more time. She wrote that the analysis will help to determine next steps with regards to graduate affordability. 

“As relayed previously, while the minimum assistantship is announced before the full cost of attendance is finalized, the components of the COA that are relevant to the assistantship (e.g. Excluding tuition and cardinal care, which are covered separately) are determined by the time the assistantship is set,” Bent wrote.  

The GSC’s efforts to spread awareness about the financial burdens faced by Stanford graduate students have led to little action from the University. 

What now?

University spokesperson Stett Holbrook wrote to The Daily in an email that “graduate students are an important and highly valued part of our teaching and research mission,” adding that the University “[seeks] to provide them with a supportive and respectful learning and research environment.”

Holbrook wrote that a report on the expenses survey’s findings will be released in the spring, and that the University will “continue to examine how we can support graduate students.”

“As always, the university wants to work collaboratively with the GSC and we look forward to continued engagement,” Holbrook wrote. 

In an email to The Daily, Bent echoed Holbrook’s statements, writing that the University “wants to work collaboratively with the GSC” and that it “[looks] forward to continued engagement.” 

She wrote that University President Marc Tessier-Lavigne and Provost Persis Drell have met regularly with the Graduate Student Council, adding that the vice provosts of graduate education and student affairs have met with the GSC as well.  

Schell said that the GSC will continue to advocate for graduate students.

“We are continuing to apply pressure on the administration to let them know that half-measures are not going to be sufficient in meeting the serious needs that we have,” Schell said. “And we as a population are deserving of full support.”

Judy N. Liu '26 is the Academics desk editor for News and staff writer at The Daily.

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