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Hanging On: The Economic Woes Of Being A Grad Student

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I think most people hate to think of themselves as middle class.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Have what you need, but maybe not everything you want.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: We have a car, but we live in an apartment. That's middle class.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: If you add a boat then you're not middle class anymore. That's what changes it right there.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: The middle class are families who are earning six figures.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Thirty thousand, $35,000, probably.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: That means me (laughter). And it means I'm in trouble (laughter).


Time now for our series Hanging On, where we take a look at the economic pressures of American life. This week, being a graduate student. On Tuesday, in a case brought by Columbia University grad students, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that teaching assistants at private colleges have the right to form a union. The Columbia students were seeking to collectively bargain over things like compensation, health care and family benefits. Paul Katz, a third-year grad student in Latin American history, is one of the organizers of the Columbia effort. And he joins us from our New York bureau. Welcome to the program.

PAUL KATZ: Oh, thank you so much for having me.

WERTHEIMER: Now, why do Columbia graduate students think it's necessary to organize?

KATZ: Well, fundamentally, it's a question of having a voice in our graduate experiences and primarily in our working conditions. We spend five, six, seven years of our lives pursuing both our own research and teaching and research assistantship at the university. This really is, I think, an important contribution to the function of the university, and we believe we deserve a say in our working conditions.

WERTHEIMER: How precarious an economic situation is it being a grad student, especially in a place like New York City?

KATZ: Well, really, the experience I can speak to most directly is my own. And that is, of course, living in one of the most expensive cities in the country. At a very basic level we have to spend, you know, an inordinate share of our income on rent. We basically just don't have a margin for error. You know, any kind of crisis or emergency is going to be very hard to address if you're living on, say, $28,000 a year.

WERTHEIMER: I understand you have a part-time job as a tour guide to help make ends meet?

KATZ: Indeed, yes. I work for a great company called Big Onion Tours. In fact, I'm just coming right now from leading a tour of the Lower East Side.

WERTHEIMER: And so this is something you do in your spare time, right?

KATZ: It is, yes. And while it is, you know, very much an enjoyable job and I appreciate it tremendously, I think the very existence of this company, which employs history graduate students from throughout New York City, is a testament to just how difficult it is to make ends meet as a grad student here.

WERTHEIMER: Now, you're 30 years old. Is that right?

KATZ: Well, 29, about to turn 30.

WERTHEIMER: So this is very different, I assume, from being a struggling 20-year-old undergraduate.

KATZ: Well, I mean, it feels like it ought to be, right? I mean, I suppose that's one of our frustrations is that I think when some people think about students in general they have in mind, you know, a college sophomore and a 19-year-old where, you know, certainly have a very high tolerance for making ends meet with, you know, very little in the way of resources. But, you know, many of us pursuing Ph.D.s are in our late 20s, in our early or mid-30s. And by this point, it would be nice to have a little bit more stability and security in our lives.

WERTHEIMER: So what is the first thing you want to try to do - to get for the graduate students at Columbia?

KATZ: Well, our main interest, the thing that unites all of us across departments, is a desire to negotiate a binding contract with the administration. More specifically, though, you know, talking to people across campus, it's become clear that we do share certain common concerns. You know, front and center is health care. I think many of us are concerned about the limits of our student health care plan, which is basically identical to the one that undergraduates receive.

We're concerned about the expense of adding dependents to our health plan, our lack of dental and vision coverage. More broadly, we're concerned about a lack of a grievance process - protections against, say, sexual harassment and assault. As long as we don't have clear procedures in place to deal with issues as they arise, it's very hard to feel secure in our lives.

WERTHEIMER: Paul Katz is a graduate student at Columbia University. Thank you very much for talking to us.

KATZ: Oh, thank you so much for having me.


WERTHEIMER: BJ Leiderman writes our theme music. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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