Opinion: Why MTSU needs to offer health care coverage to graduate assistants

Photo by Andrew Wigdor / MTSU Sidelines Archive

Story by Amy Harris-Aber / Contributing Writer

It’s no secret that MTSU has set its sights on becoming a major player when it comes to research. Our university offers an impressive variety of graduate programs: students can earn their M.S. in Equine Physiology, a Ph.D. in Molecular Bioscience or even a doctorate in Public History. Our university provides assistance and training for faculty writing research grants in order to continue building our institutional research capacity.

However, without the 549 graduate assistants on campus, the administration’s research dreams cannot become a reality. GAs are students working toward master’s or doctorate degrees who are financially supported by the university. They are expected to work 20 hours a week on top of their classes in exchange for a tuition waiver and stipend.

In addition to taking classes, they teach classes. These classes often support the general education curriculum and are too numerous to be covered by full-time faculty.

In addition to writing papers, they grade papers and hold office hours for their undergraduate students. Faculty often rely on GAs to keep up with grading in large courses.

In addition to working on their own theses and dissertations, they take positions assisting faculty with research. There aren’t enough faculty to fulfill research expectations without GAs.

Despite having a tuition waiver and a small stipend, financial burdens are often an issue for GAs. This is especially true when it comes to medical expenses. MTSU, it is time to offer health care coverage to your graduate assistants. Perhaps a health cash plan?

Many of us are over the age of 26, so were no longer eligible to be covered by our parents’ insurance. The stipends we receive aren’t enough to buy insurance on the market and also pay for food and rent.

Many of us have considered getting a job off-campus. After all, we’re living in the “gig economy,” right? That’s a problem, too. If we want to apply for outside work, we have to receive special permission from the university, and even then, the jobs we could fit into our schedules wouldn’t be full-time and thus wouldn’t provide insurance.

The graduate assistants at MTSU are in a bind. We can’t afford to buy our own health insurance on our stipends, we don’t qualify for TennCare and our employer doesn’t provide health insurance for us. Something has to change.

In order to create a thriving campus community that prioritizes student success and innovative research, we must support our current students and attract good students moving forward. We cannot do that without taking care of those who invest their time, hard work and futures in MTSU.

This is not impossible. Other major universities in Tennessee provide their graduate students with healthcare. The University of Tennessee and the University of Memphis each have different approaches for covering their GAs that MTSU could follow, or we could create our own model. MTSU must catch up to these other schools if we hope to attract the best students and fulfill our teaching and research goals. A university that invests in the well-being of its students is a university that is capable and resilient. MTSU can be that university.

This is an opinion, written from the perspective of the writer and does not reflect the views of Sidelines or MTSU.

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To contact Editor-in-Chief Brinley Hineman, email editor@mtsusidelines.com.

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