NMSU FIGHT


An organization dedicated to fair institutional graduate health and tuition practices

Read and sign our open letter, also published in the NMSU Round Up!

About NMSU FIGHT

F.I.G.H.T. Stands for Fair Institutional Graduate Health and Tuition

In light of the recent external review of the graduate school, which highlighted the lack of adequate financial compensation for graduate students at NMSU, we are encouraging the university to subsidize grad tuition and health insurance.

Increasing graduate assistant compensation (specifically the full support of tuition and health insurance costs) should be an immediate and top priority of the university. Graduate students have suffered significant financial burden for years under the current regime of consistently increasing tuition and health care costs. Yet graduate TAs, RAs, and GAs provide critical functions for the university and it’s undergraduate population. Without graduate students, compelling and innovative research would not be performed. Thousands of undergraduates would not be taught, mentored, or offered research opportunities. Millions of dollars in grant money would not be received. Hundreds of hours of community service would not be performed each semester. And NMSU would not be advertised and represented in hundreds of journals, conferences, professional societies, etc. each year. Without comprehensive and competitive support packages, graduate assistant morale will continue to decline, and graduate recruitment will remain low and a constant source of hardship for the university, destroying the university’s prospects of achieving an R1 status.

The university should make the smart choice: support graduate students with immediate action and not just words. Make grad compensation a priority and reap the benefits of a happy, healthy, productive, and growing graduate student population. Only together can we fulfill the vision of NMSU Leads 2025.

Statistics

As of May 2019, there are 131 R1 universities in the US; NMSU aims to join this prestigious category by 2025. Of those 131 universities, 129 universities (98.5%) provide their students with partial or full remission or reimbursement of their tuition, and 127 universities (97.0%) offer their graduate students some form of health insurance subsidy.
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Graduate students at NMSU experience an average annual deficit of $4,176 (see below figure).
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48% of graduate students at NMSU have considered dropping out or switching career paths as a result of the unfair financial compensation (see below figure).
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78% of graduate students at NMSU have had to take out a loan, live under credit card debt, and/or borrow money from family in order to afford basic living expenses (rent, groceries, insurance, etc.) as a result of the unfair financial compensation (see below figure).

Who We Are

We are a collection of graduate students fighting to improve conditions and compensation for all graduate students at NMSU, including reinstating subsidized health insurance and instating student-wide tuition reimbursements/waivers. Here are our reasons for joining the FIGHT, including several personal stories from fellow graduate students describing their struggles:
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"I was partially employed for summer 2020 as the instructor of a 5-week course. That is, teaching a full 4-credit course (including grading, lecturing, and creating assignments/quizzes) in 5-weeks. My department paid me for only the 5-weeks on a 20-hour TAship. In reality, with all the work and constant student questions and meetings, I worked 35 hours at a minimum, but much closer to 40 full hours a week. This left little time and energy for anything else in my life, especially the research I'm expected to complete (also without pay). My situation is not the most fraught in my department, many of my peers were supported on just a 6.5 hour TAship for 5-weeks and because they are international students, cannot often find more employment than that dismal amount. NMSU must provide summer employment to all grads and fair working conditions!"
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“I joined NMSU FIGHT because graduate students contribute just as much to the University as faculty do; we teach undergraduate courses, do research, publish results in scientific journals, represent NMSU at out-of-state and international conferences, and perform outreach events at community elementary schools and libraries. Despite all of this, the administration continues to deny us the benefits that other employees of NMSU receive, including healthcare. If the University wants to achieve R1 status and be nationally recognized for its high research productivity, it needs to start caring for its graduate students.“
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“Over the last 10+ years Biology grad students have tried and failed to negotiate tuition waivers for graduate workers at NMSU. I hope this resurgence will finally be successful in securing fair compensation and benefits for us.”
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"Since I moved to Las Cruces in May 2019, I have been without health insurance. With my paycheck, which is less during the summer due to the hiring, firing, and re-hiring process (of questionable legality) employed by NMSU, I cannot afford it. This has consistently raised my daily baseline stress level, which has only risen exponentially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Furthermore, it took a total of six months after arriving here for me to have enough money to buy a bed, one which I was only able to afford because it was 75% off. At the time of writing this, I am currently saving money to buy new shoes and socks (ones that don't have holes in them like my current ones) while searching for external funding to cover my tuition from Fall 2021. Fun fact: I've been lucky enough to have funding from [my] dept. to cover my tuition this year and next. Without it, I would still be sleeping on a leaky air mattress on the floor."
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"I suffered a nasty knee injury right after I turned 26, when I had to purchase my own insurance from the marketplace. Since I had purchased the cheapest insurance available, an MRI was too expensive for me to pay for out of pocket (especially since all orthopedic work falls under the 'specialist' category and are often subject to higher copay charges). As a result, I had to wait 2 months until I could purchase a better insurance plan in January. Until I could afford to go see a doctor, I had no idea what had happened to my knee. Even after I purchased the best insurance plan I could in January, my deductible was still ~$3,000 and the out-of-pocket max was $5,000. Monthly premiums were ~$250, even with the tax credit applied. I only hit the out-of-pocket limits in December of that year, even after I had an expensive knee surgery and paid for physical therapy ($50 copay twice a week for several months) and doctor visits throughout the year. It's also relevant that the year before, there was a bookkeeping error in how I was hired at the end of the summer, so my salary was ~$5,500 short of what it should have been while I was paying these medical bills. As a result, over that year I spent approximately 1/5 of my salary on medical bills relating to that knee injury, which was a considerable financial burden to bear."
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“I joined NMSU FIGHT because the financial burden of paying for health insurance and tuition significantly contributes to the already extremely stressful environment of attending graduate school. I want to ensure that no graduate student that comes after me is forced to struggle financially just as I did.”
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"Two weeks before my thesis proposal (the second portion of the PhD candidacy exam), I turned in my paperwork to schedule the exam - only to be told that I could not schedule my exam unless I registered for summer classes. My advisor and department head were surprised by this requirement, as it is not written in the graduate student handbook and they had never encountered it before. ... Thankfully, my advisor had a grant and was able to pay the $350+ of tuition for a bogus class that only exists so that I would be allowed to take my candidacy exam. Otherwise I would have had to come up with $350+ within a week. I still don't know where they got that requirement. ... But that shouldn't be my $350+ responsibility.
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These are just some of the stories from NMSU graduate students impacted by the unfair practices of NMSU.
If you would like to share how you have been harmed by NMSU's poor graduate practices, please let us know below!
(If you'd like to stay anonymous for your story, type "anonymous" for Name, and "anonymous@email.com" for Email.)

As of May 14th, 2020,
our open letter can also be found published in the
NMSU Round Up!

The below list of signatures will be updated ~5 minutes after new submissions.

The full open letter text can be found here.

Contact

If you want to know how you can get involved with FIGHT, email us at nmsuFIGHT@gmail.com, or Share Your Story with us below!
(If you'd like to stay anonymous for your story, type "anonymous" for Name, and "anonymous@email.com" for Email.)

Tell us how NMSU's unfair practices have affected you:

As of May 14th, 2020,
our open letter can also be found published in the
NMSU Round Up!

To the Offices of the President, Chancellor, and Board of Regents of NMSU,

An integral part of the New Mexico State University LEADS 2025 strategic plan is the attainment of Carnegie R1 research status by the year 2025. In our research, we have determined that approximately 98% of all R1 institutions provide several benefits for their graduate students that are notably lacking at NMSU. Pursuant to the NMSU LEADS 2025 goals we, therefore, demand the following necessary changes in the working conditions of graduate workers:

  • Full Tuition Remission

  • A $5,000 pay increase, and yearly 4% cost of living adjustments

  • Full summer employment for all graduate workers

  • Comprehensive health insurance, including dental and vision.

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is an absolute necessity that the university provides comprehensive health insurance to graduate workers. The external review of the graduate school released in Fall 2018 calls for many of these changes, yet the administration has failed to address these issues. Below we will justify why these are needed to help NMSU reach R1 status and place New Mexico on the map as a destination for aspiring researchers and educators.

At NMSU, there are approximately 900 teaching and research assistants, collectively known as graduate workers, who provide a significant amount of instructional and research labor at our university. Teaching assistants take on an immense teaching load, usually introductory courses and labs, which present unique challenges, even for veteran instructors, due to a lack of a shared background among new students. These courses are often the most important/instrumental courses as they provide students with a solid foundation for the rest of their college careers. An important (but often overlooked) aspect of being a teaching assistant is grading homework, quizzes, labs, and exams -- another vital part of the instructional process at any university. NMSU graduate workers provide, among their other duties, significant mentoring and tutoring services to undergraduate students, and are counted on as a vital tool for undergraduate success.

Graduate workers also provide a large portion of the research labor at our New Mexico universities. At NMSU, research assistants perform crucial experiments, rigorously collect data and observations, research archived works, and publish academic journal articles. Research assistants also write grants and contribute to the writing and other labor behind the grants submitted by professors, which serve as a major source of funds for research at our university.

Despite the tremendous labor that graduate workers provide the University and the fact that all graduate workers have advanced education and training in their field, the financial situation is dire. At NMSU, graduate workers on a 20-hour week salary earn $18,163 for the nine-month period of August to May (1). Most graduate workers must pay tuition, which as a full-time student (9 credit hours) is $6,138 for the academic year (2). This results in a pre-tax income of $12,025, which is well below the poverty threshold of $13,300 for single adults according to US Census data in 2019 (3). This does not include the cost of healthcare and other pertinent costs (see Figure 1). The cheapest market healthcare plan costs approximately $240/month and is not accepted at the Memorial Medical Center, the closest medical facility to the NMSU campus. Many graduate workers at NMSU travel to Juarez, Mexico for healthcare because they cannot afford healthcare in Las Cruces or El Paso.

Figure 1. Monthly expenditures for a single domestic student (left bar) and a single international student (right bar). Categories do not include expenditures for pets, children, or other familial dependencies, nor do they include miscellaneous or emergency finances. This figure, therefore, excludes a large majority of graduate students at NMSU; entire groups of students are not accounted for, and therefore are substantially disenfranchised. Horizontal solid (0.5 FTE) and dashed (0.25 FTE) lines represent gross income and do not reflect take-home pay after federal and state tax withholdings. Given that a majority of graduate students are not paid by the university over the summer (and that international students are forbidden from receiving additional income outside their fields), two of the horizontal lines represent a 9-month salary that is spread across 12 months. The other two horizontal lines represent an uninterrupted 12-month salary.
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This is unacceptable, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. NMSU has a responsibility to keep its workforce, including graduate workers, safe. With this $6,138 tuition cost, many graduate students take out loans to pay tuition, with the average NMSU GA in a $4,100 annual deficit. Using average living costs in Las Cruces, we demonstrate the financial unsustainability of obtaining a highly specialized degree at NMSU in Figure 1.

This financial situation carries additional negative consequences for international students. Due to their visas not allowing employment outside of their field, many international students who are only employed for 9 months by NMSU cannot get paid during the summer. Additionally, NMSU is required to provide international students with health insurance by law. However, this has amounted to unstable coverage and a lack of clarity over the provided plan. On top of this, the university requires payment for the insurance plan before international students can enroll in classes, often putting international graduate workers at a vulnerable financial situation at the beginning of the academic year.

The NMSU administration has failed to address these graduate issues, against the recommendation of an external review panel of the Graduate School in Fall 2018. In subsequent meetings with students, the Graduate School has continued to ignore and has failed to address such problems. Graduate students at NMSU cannot thrive or be adequately productive under the major financial stress caused by the lack of tuition remission, lack of insurance, and insufficient compensation.

If NMSU is to reach Carnegie R1 status, the university will need to boost its research productivity. As the providers of a massive amount of research labor at NMSU, graduate workers deserve a fair solution to manage their financial stress which otherwise hinders their productivity. Outlined in Figure 2, of the 131 universities across the country recognized as a Carnegie R1 institution, the vast majority (126) provide full tuition remission, higher pay, and insurance to their graduate workers. NMSU is a non-competitive option for promising prospective graduate students; over half of graduate workers we surveyed would not recommend NMSU for graduate school. NMSU needs to be able to attract more graduate students to further boost research productivity at NMSU.

The benefits gained by providing equitable conditions to NMSU’s graduate workforce extend beyond the confines of the university system as well. The Las Cruces region, as well as the wider state of New Mexico, benefit from the technological and scientific expertise provided by the graduates of NMSU. The seemingly-arbitrary restrictions unfairly levied against NMSU graduate workers are, therefore, actively against the best interests of the state of New Mexico. Besides the unnecessary burden on the public systems of an already-impoverished state, through the inability of many NMSU graduate students to obtain basic living expenses, the damage done to the scientific and technological future of New Mexico is far-reaching. Barriers to the progress and success of graduate students at NMSU disadvantage these students in their future careers, and disincentivize them from remaining to bolster the technological progress of the state.

Figure 2. A map of all 131 Universities in the United States with Carnegie R1 designation. NMSU is also included, which aspires to become R1 by 2025. Of these Universities, 98.5% (129) provide some form of tuition remission for graduate workers, and 96.9% (127) provide health insurance or health insurance subsidies through the University. Only one R1 University provides neither. The University of Hawaii at Manoa is not pictured but provides both health insurance and tuition remission for graduate workers. This information was collated from the public websites of each University.
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If New Mexico State University plans to reach Carnegie R1 status, offer competitive wages and benefits to attract new graduate students, and achieve the strategic goals of NMSU LEADS 2025, we see these changes for graduate workers as an absolute necessity. Granting graduate workers full tuition remission, guaranteed summer employment, increased pay, and a comprehensive health insurance plan is absolutely mandatory to improving the quality of life for graduate workers at NMSU. The administration must act quickly to implement these changes at NMSU, and prove that they recognize the high value that graduate workers bring to the University.

Sign via this form if you are a member of the NMSU Community who supports the need
for these improvements for graduate workers, or to view the signatories of this petition.

Signed,

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Sources:

  1. https://hr.nmsu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/Graduate-Assistants-Salary-Table_Effective-7.1.19.pdf

  2. https://uar.nmsu.edu/tuition-fees/tuition-rates/

  3. https://www.census.gov/data/tables/time-series/demo/income-poverty/historical-poverty-thresholds.html

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  1. https://www.thezebra.com/auto-insurance/average-auto-insurance/

  2. https://www.moneysavingpro.com/cell-phone-plans/comparing-us-and-uk-bills/

  3. 25 mpg, $2.10/gal, https://www.mycarinsurance123.com/average-miles-driven-per-year/

  4. https://www.numbeo.com/cost-of-living/in/Las-Cruces

  5. https://blog.mint.com/food-budgets/monthly-grocery-budget/ Adjusted based on grocery COL 94.2/100 (https://www.bestplaces.net/costofliving/city/new_mexico/las_cruces)

  6. 26 yo on $18,163 salary, Silver plan, without tax credit, plus dental+vision (https://www.kff.org/interactive/subsidy-calculator/)

  7. https://www.collegetuitioncompare.com/edu/188030/new-mexico-state-university-main-campus/tuition/

  8. https://www.rentjungle.com/average-rent-in-las-cruces-rent-trends/