Virginia Tech graduate students fight for higher wages

A Virginia Tech task force studied living wages compared to grad student compensation

BLACKSBURG, Va. – From teaching classes to doing groundbreaking research - graduate students are often known as the lifeblood of universities.

“I think that people also don’t understand just how much money graduate students make for the university. We’re part of the academic ecosystem that keeps it going,” Ph.D. candidate and former Graduate and Professional Student Senate President Jack Leff said.

Leff is one of the many grad students fighting for compensation change.

“It’s a really similar feeling to every grad student who walks onto a campus, right?” Leff said. “Universally, graduate students across the border are underpaid. That’s why so many are unionizing in California, in Chicago, in North Carolina.”

According to a living wage report released this week by a Virginia Tech task force, the current minimum monthly stipend for grad students is $1,679.

But they found the average cost of living in Blacksburg to be $2,734 per month.

Leff alongside hundreds of graduate students at Virginia Tech said they are not being paid a living wage.

An anonymous flyer campaign across campus tells grad students’ stories of this, including many involving food insecurity.

“They’re capturing really, really important personal stories,” Leff said. “I mean, if you read these fliers, they’re all about how people are going hungry, how people have to work three or four jobs over the summer. I had to work three jobs over the summer.”

Mark Owczarski with Virginia Tech said they are working alongside the students.

“Graduate teaching assistants and our graduate research assistants are really, really important members of our community because they provide us and they contribute in so many ways,” Owczarski said.

The graduate student senate passed a bill that would hold the university to creating a viable funding plan before the 2023-2024 school year to provide more financial support to grad students.

The bill then went before faculty and staff where it also passed.

The task force recommends eight key changes - including raising compensation. But ultimately, it’s up to the Board of Visitors later this month.

“If it didn’t pass it would be hugely disappointing,” Leff said. “I mean, it would be the Board of Visitors of a public land grant institution saying, ‘Hey, we don’t care about the lifeblood of this institution. We’re going to pay you poverty, starvation, wages,’ knowing what that means.”

Owczarski said the university recognizes that the cost of living has gone up due to inflation, and wants to do what it can.

“The notion of the compensation and the cost of living,” Owczarski said. “It’s true for all people at Virginia Tech and all of us in our homes as we see the price of groceries and things, everything is going up.”

Leff said if Virginia Tech doesn’t make a change, that could deter students.

“We won’t be able to compete with all the universities that have unions or that are getting living wages or that, you know, are doing the serious work to address this disparity,” Leff said.

About the Author:

Abbie Coleman officially joined the WSLS 10 News team in January 2023.