Graduate Education and Health Insurance

A fundamental challenge at the New School for Social Research

Last year, the New School for Social Research and the university administration announced a new fellowship initiative for NSSR students, included full scholarships for Ph.D. students, covering full tuition and a $20,000 yearly stipend for three to five years of study. Dean’s Fellowships, providing full tuition, were also maintained. The scholarships were rolled out this year: 23 students were recipient of the Prize Fellowship (tuition + stipend) and 12 students received the Dean’s Fellowship. The new plan was funded by $1,000,000 given to NSSR by the University. According to my notes taken from various Dean’s Advisory Councils that I attended as a sociology student representative, by 2022, Ph.D. students will be reduced from 510 to 350. As of spring 2014, only 7% of Ph.D. students had full tuition plus stipend (which ranged from $7,500 to $15,000 yearly) and an additional 7% had full tuition covered by NSSR. By 2022, both percentages should be upgraded to 25%. This means that half of Ph.D. students at NSSR would have their tuition totally covered by the New School. The other half would either be partially financed by NSSR or totally funded by other sources. All of this is praiseworthy.

However, I was struck by the absence of healthcare within Ph.D. student’s fellowships. In the discussions, the New School refused to provide funding to cover our health insurance. The only reason that they gave us was that health insurance, unlike scholarships and fellowships, is not merit-based, but rather it is merely a human need. While NSSR recognizes that health services are a “human right” worthy of all Ph.D. students, in the same breath they claim that it is not worthy of financial support. 

Currently, the New School offers two health plans: health services and health insurance. The former one provides access to medical and counseling services on campus as well as a basic accident insurance plan. The fee amount is $636 for the 2014-2015 academic year. The latter covers accidents, sickness and mental health and is provided by Aetna Student Health. Information about benefits and coverage can be found here. Students have to pay an annual fee of $2,892 to access it. This way, a Ph.D. student that chooses to enroll on the healthcare plans offered by the New School will have to pay a total amount of $3,528 for the 2014-2015 academic year. In fact, for international students enrollment in this plan is mandatory unless proof of enrollment in another similar plan is demonstrated. Without taking into consideration the fact that almost, if not all, Ph.D. programs in the United States include health insurance within their funding, the amount that NSSR doctoral students have to pay is much higher that the one that, for example, Columbia University Graduate students have to pay; which is also provided by Aetna.

To my knowledge not a single Ph.D. student has her or his health insurance covered by the New School. If students do not have to pay healthcare from their own pockets it’s because they are financed by outside funding. Now let me put into perspective how strenuous healthcare is vis-à-vis a student’s budget. According to the New School’s website the cost of attendance to NSSR amounts to $24,468 per year, without including tuition related fees.

If a student is lucky, though deserving, of being recipient of one of the aforementioned Prize fellowships, and her or his only source of income is the $20,000 stipend -which is taxable, by the way- we can see that she or he already cannot cover the University’s estimated cost of attendance. Rent alone in New York City averages a yearly $9,600 for a room in a shared apartment (assuming a monthly rent of $800 with utilities). We are left, then, with $10,400 to survive for a year and still no health care expense added. Transportation within the city amounts to $1344 (based on 12 monthly metro cards). We now have $9,056. Of course a good Ph.D. student is one that is healthy and one that does not have to worry about the anxieties of affording health care. If we add the cost of health insurance offered by the New School, then the student only has $5,528 (or $460 monthly) for food, books and supplies, personal expenses, leisure, and other expenses. 

Students who do not receive a stipend or full tuition waiver have other New School opportunities to fund their doctoral studies, like being a teaching or research assistant. Yet, it does not solve the problem of health insurance costs being tremendously difficult for Ph.D. students. Keeping in mind the $3,582 that health insurance costs, consider that at NSSR the salary for RA is around $5,500 per year and for TA is around $4,900 per course. TAs’ salaries in other New School divisions range from $1,500 to $4,900 per course or section depending on the tasks involved. A teaching fellowship, which entails designing and managing your own course, pays up to $5,000 per course. Logically, and based on the aforementioned cost of attendance, doctoral students are forced to have other jobs; which take away time and focus from their own research. This greatly contributes to the above-average time that NSSR students take to complete their Ph.D.s. Foreign students can only legally work at the New School and have a limit of 20 hours per week, constraining their options. There is the possibility for applying to off-campus offers, but it does not change the fact that time that should be devoted to study and research is being diverted to pay everyday costs of living plus health insurance.

The new funding plan is a very good initiative and, I think, it is going in the right direction. Though, there are two adverse consequences: first, it incentivizes an atmosphere of competition, resentment, and rivalry produced by the fact that only one or two students of each cohort will receive the financial support. This situation has been ntil now, absent among students at school. Second, it does not address the financial needs of all the Ph.D. students who are already in the pipeline. Regarding the latter issue, NSSR has taken two decisions that should ameliorate the financial constraints of continuing Ph.D. students. For starters, the so-called “bridge fellowship” which consists of one student from every department obtaining a full tuition plus a $10,000 stipend for two years. Then, there is the GIDEST center that is funded by the Mellon Foundation and awards a yearly $ 20,000 stipend to Ph.D. students who are already doing fieldwork, or writing, or about to start their research. Of course, we should not forget the Dissertation Fellowship that covers maintenance of status fees (that are up to $1,200 per semester) and also awards a $ 10,000 stipend for one year to students that have become Ph.D. candidates. Still, none of these fellowships or awards includes healthcare. 

I agree with NSSR that providing financial support for the health insurance should not be awarded based on merit. It should simply be awarded based on being a human being. Therefore, it seems logical that the New School should devise a plan that provides healthcare funding for all Ph.D. students at NSSR. In order to be able to fund $3,582 for 350-450 students the School would need around $1,300,000 a year. This means that NSSR would need an endowment of around $10,000,000 to $ 12,000,000 to be able to self-finance funding healthcare for all doctoral students, present and future, in the years to come. Therefore, it is imperative for NSSR to immediately start forming a committee or task force with the exclusive goal of finding funding opportunities for student health insurance. 

I understand that the University has been under harsh financial constraints these last few years. I also understand that a social sciences school like NSSR is not a money-making institution, that it has been in the red for a couple of years, and that the New School lacks hard sciences centers that could spill over their gains to non-profitable schools. That being said, I strongly believe that universities should provide health care for their Ph.D. students. Doctoral students are not merely studying; they are teaching courses, and assisting faculty with their research and teaching responsibilities among other things. Additionally, a Ph.D. student’s research, dissertation, and future academic endeavors can also be considered as work for the university that awards the doctoral degree. As far as I know, other universities that fund Ph.D. students include health care in their funding package. 

NSSR has a lot to gain by financing healthcare for doctoral students. Not having to pay $3,582 means that students do not have to worry or stress about health insurance. They will take that extra RA, or TA, or other type of job, enabling them to invest those hours on their research in order to advance their work and graduate faster. Covering healthcare for all Ph.D. students would also alleviate the competitive atmosphere that has emerged with the new scholarships and awards. There is probably nothing more universal and fair than providing health care. Also, NSSR would probably not even have to finance all Ph.D. students’ healthcare. Some foreign students have health insurance covered by certain foundations or scholarships like, for example, Fullbright. Other Ph.D. students have a generous outside funding that covers totally, or partially, the health costs; others are doing fieldwork abroad so they do not need health insurance during that time; and lastly, after the Affordable Health Care for America Act started rolling out last year, all American citizens under 26 years old are covered by their parents health insurance, provided they have one of course. 

Healthcare costs are one of the many issues that financially affect Ph.D. students, and many others could be mentioned; however, financing health insurance for all Ph.D. students is the absolute priority. If NSSR and the New School are serious about providing more financial support, competing with other New York based universities, and making sure that doing a Ph.D. at NSSR does not take forever; then supporting healthcare insurance for all Ph.D. students is one of the mandatory starting points and the most important non-merit based student right. I do not expect the New School to solve this problem immediately, but it most definitely should be addressed in their ambitious plan looking toward 2022. And I hope that NSSR Ph.D. students will be provided with free health insurance sooner rather than later.  

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Emmanuel Guerisoli

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