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Benefiting Whom? The Graduate Worker Experience at Dartmouth
Nov 28, 2021

Janine D'Souza

A recent report by graduate workers have highlighted the challenges they faced as they try to balance low stipends and high rent.

Students attend Dartmouth with some basic expectations about the bare minimum of what their college, one of the wealthiest institutions of higher education in the United States, can offer them – budgetable housing, affordable health insurance, and fair compensation for their labor. Instead, Dartmouth has relegated what should be necessities to luxuries which the majority of its student body cannot access.

A recent report published by Dartmouth’s Graduate Student Council (GSC) this September exemplifies the college’s treatment of these issues. The GSC’s Benefits Ad-Hoc Committee’s Report has brought to light the struggles of graduate workers at the College, the latest in a series of events demonstrating how Dartmouth continues to underserve its student population. The report’s key findings highlight the disparities between Dartmouth and its peer institutions’ offering of graduate worker stipends, health care coverage, and family benefits, to name a few.

Rachel Osmundsen and Eva Childers, two of the report’s co-authors, say that the 2021 report is a follow-up of an original report published in 2017 examining the benefits provided to graduate workers. After leaving recommendations for the College in the initial report, the authors of the 2021 report tracked the progress (or lack thereof) of Dartmouth’s response to students’ concerns. With the exception of eliminating coinsurance for prescriptions, in all six examined areas of benefits, Dartmouth has neither made progress on recommendations from the 2017 report nor offered services equivalent to its peer Ivy+ institutions.

The biggest disappointment for Dartmouth graduate workers lies in the lack of meaningful assistance to them via stipends. Stipends are compensations for academic, intellectual, and sometimes physical labor undertaken by graduate workers. These students contribute countless hours of their effort and energy into their work and expect fair recompensation. Instead, Dartmouth’s allocation of funds for graduate stipends places an added burden on students’ backs as they struggle to pay rent and afford basic services. In compiling the data for the report, Osmundsen and Childers add that finding information about Dartmouth’s stipends was difficult as it is one of the few institutions that does not publish stipend amounts in publicly accessible locations. Perhaps this is due to the report’s finding, which shows that because Dartmouth’s graduate stipends have not kept up with the cost of living in the Upper Valley, Dartmouth graduate students spend over 55% of their stipends on rent, the highest percentage out of all peer institutions.

On top of the lack of livable stipends, healthcare coverage and expenses remains an additional barrier to graduate life/work due to Dartmouth’s poor healthcare plans. The study warns of Dartmouth’s high deductibles, rising premiums, and a “health access fee” of $495 that is required upon enrolling in Dartmouth’s health insurance plan. This just covers general healthcare at Dartmouth; mental health care and disability service access are even worse. Dartmouth, compared to other Ivy+ institutions, has the most expensive mental health care as students are limited to only 10 free visits to Dick’s House before being referred to an external provider and are often referred to external providers right after their triage (first) appointment with Dick's House. Due to the costs of these providers and the already low stipend provided by Dartmouth, the report finds that “a graduate student who needs to see an out-of-network mental health specialist weekly spends 25% of their salary on healthcare.” Students with disabilities do not fare any better. Keighley Rockcliffe, president of the Graduate Student Council, details the lack of services offered to graduate workers with disabilities. “All other Ivy+ institutions have a student accessibility service coordinator with a role specifically designated to assist students with disabilities. Dartmouth does not have any such position for graduate students, so this role instead informally falls on other staff members.”

Finally, the benefits report finds that Dartmouth’s lack of resources for graduate workers with children is particularly stark. Not only is the cost of adding a dependent to a health insurance plan at Dartmouth much higher than its peer institutions, but the resources available for the children of graduate workers are practically nonexistent. While other institutions offer partnerships with childcare services or offer childcare subsidies, Dartmouth does neither. To make matters worse, the childcare center located on Dartmouth’s campus does not offer its services to graduate workers. Despite these findings appearing  in the previous benefits report, none of the report’s recommendations were implemented by Dartmouth.

The reports’ findings preceded the news of Dartmouth’s hefty endowment growth, a drastic jump to $8.5 billion. In response, Dartmouth offered graduate students a one-time $1,000 bonus, which averages less than one month of rent for the average Upper Valley resident. Keighley Rockliff expressed her disappointment at the college’s minimal effort at utilizing its funds to support students. Rockcliffe said, “It was especially discouraging to see the endowment after knowing my peers’ efforts at bringing the information in the benefits report to light.” Rockcliffe also spoke to the opportunity she and the GSC see for Dartmouth to act knowing that information about the endowment is publicly available now, pushing the Office of the Provost, members of the Guarini administration, and the Board of Trustees amongst other College actors to implement the recommendations of the report.

After witnessing the lack of response from Dartmouth administration following the publication of the benefits report, we as students and workers are faced with the question of how to take action to achieve our goals. The answer lies in collective organizing as a community to demand change from the college. Nearly all other peer institutions have some form of community organizing that allows students to air grievances, demand proper rights, and show a united front of students and workers against billion-dollar institutions. Just take a look at graduate students at Columbia University; at the time of writing, the Student Workers of Columbia-United Auto Workers have been on strike for over a week over many of the same issues facing Dartmouth graduate students. Columbia as an institution is abundantly aware of the plight of its student worker but now is being forced to reckon with its mistreatment of students. Dartmouth, on the other hand, has not experienced this same level of organized backlash against its austere policies.

However, this does not mean that no efforts have been made in the graduate student body to build solidarity from within. Aileen Eagleton, co-chair of Graduate Women in Science and Engineering (GWISE), says that GWISE wants to facilitate efforts at building collective power aimed at improving the lives of students. In the meantime, when asked how to build a stronger community, Eagleton says that we should be making more efforts at providing mutual aid. “If the college isn’t meeting the needs of graduate students, we need to make sure that we’re taking care of each other,” they say. From supporting members of our community amidst the COVID-19 pandemic through the Dartmouth Student Union to the collective efforts of the Freedom Budget Coalition to extract support for marginalized members of Dartmouth, it’s clear that there is power amongst this student body. These efforts don’t end on campus either; organizers in the Upper Valley are at work to consolidate power amongst tenants in order to stop exploitation by landlords and bring forward demands from the ground up. The power of a community bound together with shared concerns for and stakes in each other's well being will always prevail against efforts to squash them.

It’s clear that the struggles of students and workers on Dartmouth’s campus, whether that be undergraduates, master's students, doctoral students, or anyone else contributing their talents and labor to Dartmouth, have not received the attention they deserve. Talking about these issues with your peers, organizing to support other students in times of need, and forcing Dartmouth College to confront its flaws are the steps that need to be taken to ensure a better world and future for the people of this campus.

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