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‘Rent plus Ramen equals stipend’: Twenty years later, Stanford’s graduate student crisis persists

In 1998, nearly 1,000 Stanford graduate students staged a rally and camp-in protesting unaffordable campus housing options and financial insecurity. In the cold and rain of night, they pitched tents in the middle of Main Quad and covered them in signs that read, “Look Mom, no housing,” and, “Rent plus Ramen equals stipend.” Over 20 years later, the issues they raised continue to create significant hardship for many.

Despite comprising a majority of the University’s student body, Stanford’s graduate student community is a largely ignored one. Frequently overworked, underpaid and neglected by University administrators, many students pursuing advanced degrees find that the realities of the graduate lifestyle stand in harsh contrast with the dream upon which they are sold.

In this protracted state of relative administrative indifference, a crisis has been allowed to flourish. Rat-infested homes, steep healthcare costs and a daily struggle for subsistence are hardships that sound downright Hobbesian in their deprivation. And yet, these are realities for many at a school that purports to be one of the foremost academic institutions in the world.

A recent spate of coverage has shed light on the grave disparities that grad students confront on a daily basis. A widely shared Stanford Daily report from February details the graduate student affordability crisis. It describes students pushed to the brink of survival, their pockets gouged by Stanford’s hefty meal and housing plans. Some graduate students have no choice but to pick fruit off the trees around campus and bring take-home containers to public talks that offer complimentary refreshments, simply to provide for themselves and their families.

The report further illustrates the high costs or even total absence of healthcare with which many grad students are forced to contend. Stanford’s central financial aid office subsidizes graduate students’ Cardinal Care by either 25 or 50 percent, depending on one’s position. The choice of whether to pick up the remaining percentage, however, is up to the individual academic departments. And although students have long advocated for the University to fully subsidize Cardinal Care for all graduate students, their efforts have been thus far unsuccessful. As a result, many are forced to spend huge portions of their already-small stipends on healthcare, or simply forgo it altogether.

These issues are especially pressing for international students, who comprise 34 percent of the graduate population. Visa restrictions limit the additional income they can receive from outside employment, and many external funding sources available to domestic students are closed off to internationals.

The Daily’s coverage of a harrowing six-month rat infestation in Escondido Village similarly highlights this trend of indifference toward grads. Residents described frightening allergic reactions and emergency room visits resulting from bites from rat mites — bites suffered even after Residential and Dining Enterprises (R&DE) was notified of the issue. Troublingly, the University repeatedly failed to respond to resident complaints, and months passed before the affected families were finally moved elsewhere.

Given the formidable trials graduate students face, it’s high time the University musters a response to this egregious state of affairs.

Though we have reported on the Affordability Task Force’s efforts to mitigate these issues, it’s not a secret that commissions, committees and task forces are not designed for quick decision making — and the critical situations The Daily has documented call for emergency action. In the days following publication of the February affordability piece, community members have written to The Daily offering their homes, food and money to personally assist students who are struggling.

In light of the decisive action taken by Vice Provosts Harry Elam and Susie Brubaker-Cole to increase undergraduate residential staff pay, we wonder whether it is not time for the University or R&DE to similarly accommodate the financial needs of struggling grads.

It is well understood that R&DE already offers University housing at only 40 percent of market value, which, granted, is a great subsidy. Nonetheless, why not means test meal plans or housing costs to determine what graduate students can afford to pay? This way, the students that can pay out of pocket will do so, and the remaining students won’t be left with single digits in their bank accounts if they deplete their stipend money. Factoring in visa status will also shed light on this front.

Regarding the families that have been impacted by the rat infestation, amends must be made by the University to address the distress and health concerns experienced by students and their children. Many affected students are international, and their potentially precarious immigration statuses may disincentivize them from pursuing measures of restitution.

Going forward, the University’s long-range plans must include greater consideration for graduate students, particularly those whose visas may not grant them the privileges afforded to domestic graduates. It’s encouraging that Long-Range Planning committees have at least discussed issues regulated to increased minimum salary, the creation of a Financial Hardship Fund for help with childcare and housing costs for postdocs, need-based financial assistance increased for graduate students who are parents, an expansion of on-campus graduation housing, and an “enhanced” loan program for faculty housing.

We hope to see these ideas become a reality, instead of condemned to being task-force initiatives that never see the light of day.

If you are a graduate student seeking emergency financial or nutritional assistance, contact The Graduate Life Office at 650-736-7078 or [email protected].

 

Contact the Editorial Board at opinions ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.

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