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graduate students
Students at the New School protest a proposed increase in fees. Graduate teaching assistants went on strike last year and forced the university to waive some fees, but fees have since been added and increased. Credit: Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

NEW YORKThe quiet of the summer seemed a good time for at least one new enrollee to come fill out his paperwork for the master’s program in public administration at Baruch College, part of the City University of New York.

Except for the backpack he was wearing, it would have been hard to pick him out as a graduate student. Like many Americans who go to graduate school, he already works full time outside of school and will attend Baruch part time for the next three years in the hope of improving his career prospects. He’ll pay for it himself with student loans.

That’s why he was so perturbed to learn that, on top of the tuition for which he’s already budgeted, he’ll have to pay the university a $1,000-a-year “academic excellence fee.” He’s lucky it’s only that much. In one department at Baruch, this fee is $2,000 a year; in another, $8,000.

He didn’t plan for that additional cost, said the student, who asked that his name not be used for fear of retribution from administrators for discussing it.

“This is not cheap,” he said, exasperated, outside the university’s Information and Technology Building.

“It’s like when you’re an undergraduate,” he said, rattling off all the fees he paid then. “Technology fee. Transportation fee. Student activity fee. There’s like five other fees that all have weird names. You’re already paying for these services. It’s just another way of charging extra.”

Related: Universities increasingly turn to graduate programs to balance their books

If undergraduates are tired of these fees, graduate students are incensed — and starting to push back. This is especially true among the many who were promised free tuition and small stipends to work as teaching or research assistants, but who have been surprised to find they still have to pay thousands of dollars in fees with euphemistic names and indeterminate purposes. Some of these students, who help teach undergrads and supply important labor in campus labs, are having to take out loans just to pay the fees.

 Baruch College in New York charges graduate students in one program an $8,000-a-year “academic excellence fee” on top of their tuition.

And while there remains reluctance among graduate students like the one at Baruch to jeopardize their standing by speaking out about this, others are beginning to transform their anger into strikes and protests. A handful of faculty are taking up their cause. And a few institutions have bowed to demands that they reduce or eliminate some graduate student fees, though often with limits and conditions.

The total amount of fees charged by universities and colleges more than doubled in the 15 years ending in 2017, the last period for which the figure is available, even when adjusted for inflation. That’s up faster than tuition, which rose 80 percent during the same period, according to one of the very few analyses of this little-reported part of college costs, by Seton Hall University education professor Robert Kelchen. Fees alone now account for more than a fifth of what students have to pay for college, before room and board is added.

There’s no comprehensive independent breakdown of graduate student fees alone, but many institutions have increased those, too. One study of fees paid by graduate students at top research institutions found that they’re $4,653 per year at Louisiana State University, $3,622 at North Carolina State and $3,160 at the University of Tennessee.

Graduate students are already seeing their net costs increase faster than undergraduates’. One result of this is that the share of federal loans going to graduate students rose from 32 percent in 2002 to 40 percent last year, while undergraduate borrowing — which gets most of the attention — has actually been falling since 2012, according to the College Board.

Graduate students each now owe three times more, on average, than the average undergraduate, according to the Urban Institute.

“And I’m about to be in that pile,” said the student at Baruch.

Baruch wouldn’t initially say, despite being asked repeatedly over five weeks, what its “academic excellence fee” is for; spokeswoman Suzanne Bronski provided only a written statement saying that all fees are disclosed on the website and that an “overwhelming majority” of similar institutions also charge them. As this story was about to run, Bronski said the fee paid for graduate faculty, advisors and career services.

Related: In-demand graduate programs become a cash cow for colleges in financial distress

Figures provided in response to a public-records request show that Baruch collected $8.8 million from graduate student fees in the academic year just ended, on top of the $29.8 million in graduate tuition it charged.

Graduate students are “a core engine of research and discovery. By imposing these fees, we’re limiting our talent pool.”

Many fees like this were added at the beginning of the last recession by public universities when state funding was cut. But instead of being phased out as the economy recovered, they’ve steadily increased.

The University of Georgia System Board of Regents, for example, imposed a “special institutional fee” of $100 per semester as a  “temporary measure” to make up for state cutbacks in 2009. It’s still there, and now up to $344 per semester for graduate students, part of a slate of fees that add up to $1,012 per semester.

“It may not seem like a lot, but when you’re making [a stipend of] $25,000 and working in a major city, it’s a major problem,” said Joshua Weitz, a professor of biological sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Weitz depends on graduate students as teaching and research assistants and has become an outspoken critic of these fees.

“We would expect that we wouldn’t be making them pay a fee to do the work we want them to do,” he said.

Terri Dunbar, a doctoral student in psychology at Georgia Tech who also works as a teaching fellow, estimates her fees at about $4,000 a year, including for the summer, when she stays on campus. Unable to cover those from her $20,000-a-year stipend while also living in Atlanta, Dunbar said, she’s borrowed around $20,000 just to pay for fees.

Universities’ mindset, Dunbar said, seems to be, “‘Rather than finding money from somewhere else in the budget, let’s just make the students pay for it.’”

It’s not unusual for fees to suck up large proportions of the generally small stipends paid to graduate teaching and research assistants, said Jon Bomar, an officer of the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students and a doctoral candidate in biomedical engineering at the University of Maine.

Related: Universities that are recruiting older students often leave them floundering

“When we’re being paid at or below what might reasonably be considered a living wage, taking another 10 or 20 percent out of that, that has a huge impact on students,” Bomar said.

“When you show up to school and have to pay $2,000 a semester that you weren’t aware of or told you’d have to have to pay, it comes as a surprise to a student.”

Universities resort to charging vaguely branded fees, he said, because “it’s a way to raise the cost of education without having to make that very publicly accessible.” Many graduate students, in fact, don’t realize they have to pay these fees until they have accepted an appointment. That’s because appointment offers often promise that tuition will be waived without mentioning the fees, and some university websites make a puzzle out of finding them.

“When you show up to school and have to pay $2,000 a semester that you weren’t aware of or told you’d have to have to pay, it comes as a surprise to a student,” Bomar said. “I don’t think it’s inaccurate to say they’re hidden fees.”

Yet as angry as they are, “A lot of grad students get scared that they’ll get kicked out of their labs if they speak out” about this, said Dunbar.

That’s beginning to change.

In protests in April, including the day on which accepted students and their parents visited the campus, graduate teaching and research assistants at Stony Brook University demanded that the fees charged there be eliminated.

Stony Brook’s “academic excellence and success fee,” which was $75 per year when it was imposed in 2011, is now $375 per year, part of a menu of mandatory fees that cost in-state graduate students $5,805.50 per year, with another $180.50 increase scheduled for fall. That includes a $125-a-year “college fee.”

“It’s just a backdoor way to raise tuition,” said Caroline Propersi-Grossman, who was chief steward of the Stony Brook Graduate Student Employees Union at the time of those protests.

A union representing more than 1,500 graduate teaching and research assistants at the University of Illinois at Chicago went on strike in March, partly over increases to the fees and assessments they were being charged while making wages that start at $18,000 a year. The students won a slight bump in pay, and reduced fees.

Graduate students at the University of Colorado Boulder have held repeated demonstrations against fees that come to $2,088 per year for law students and $1,732 for other graduate students. They’ve had some success, too: A task force set up in response to the protests recommended in a draft report that mandatory fees be dropped for graduate students who teach and do research — over time, and assuming funding becomes available.

Similar qualifications have accompanied rollbacks of fees at other universities. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, for instance, where graduate students pay $2,035 per year in fees, has announced that “some, but not all” mandatory fees will be eased “in most cases,” beginning in the fall, for graduate students who also teach and do research. But that will occur only if the students’ departments decide to subsidize the fees on their behalf, or if the grants that pay for them allow it. A spokeswoman said there was no way of estimating how many students would benefit, and to what extent.

Related: Students, employees scour college finances for waste, proof of unfair pay

At CU Boulder there’s no timeline to respond to the task force’s proposal, a spokeswoman said, which the task force estimated would cost the university an estimated $3.3 million a year.

CU Boulder graduate students complain that the mandatory fees consume nearly 10 cents of every dollar of the $22,000-a-year stipends they receive for teaching and conducting research. “It’s pretty absurd to have to pay to do your job,” said Alex Wolf-Root, an organizer for the graduate student union, which does not have formal university recognition.

The CU Boulder task force report also gave a rare glimpse of why universities are quick to add and reluctant to reduce fees. On that campus, which has the equivalent of 30,389 full-time students, the report said, every $13 reduction in undergraduate and graduate fees would cost $1 million.

Weitz, at Georgia Tech, said fees on graduate teaching and research assistants “may make sense as a way to raise revenues, but they create a strange disincentive and penalize a class of workers who are at the very lowest end of the salary range.”

Graduate students are “a core engine of research and discovery,” he said. “By imposing these fees, we’re limiting our talent pool.”

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