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Minimum Self-Sufficiency Income

Graduate employees at CU, especially those of us with dependents, struggle to survive on our stipends. The high cost of living in Boulder makes basic needs hard to meet, let alone the burden of unexpected costs. Being short on cash not only creates personal stress, but also impacts our quality of teaching and research. Steps we take to minimize our budget struggles, from second jobs to extensive commutes, all take time away from the work we are here for — learning, teaching, and pursuing quality research.

The cost of living in Boulder County for one adult with no children is between $28,209 (Colorado Center for Law and Policy, 2015) and $45,517 (Economic Policy Institute, 2018). These numbers do not include the cost of books, supplies, or mandatory university fees.

Graduate employees make an average $21,434 on a typical fully-funded 9-month TA or RA appointment. According to the CU Bursar, we can expect to spend $1,800 per year on books and supplies plus $881 per semester on mandatory student fees. This means an average graduate workers' take-home pay is $17,872, or between 39% and 63% of a living wage. Graduate employees in departments with less money may earn less — to the extent that their net take-home pay is negative, without necessarily requiring less work — while some graduate employees, especially in disciplines well-funded by external research, may receive summer pay that brings their total income to the lower end of living wage estimates.

What is a Living Wage?

A living or self-sufficiency wage is the amount a working adult requires to cover their basic needs. A person must be able to pay for their housing, child care, food, transportation, healthcare, utilities, and miscellaneous required expenses, and to save for emergencies. This minimum varies with family structure and location. The cost of living in Boulder is particularly high.

The Self-Sufficiency Standard (SSS) prepared for Boulder County by the Colorado Center for Law and Policy (CCLP) was influential in determining the City of Boulder’s minimum wage for city employees. Quoting the City Council’s Human Relations Commission recommendations2:

… Dr. Diana Pearce of the University Of Washington School Of Social Work … [has developed an approach to calculating the cost of living] called the Self-Sufficiency Standard (SSS), [which] factors a broad range of basic needs into its calculation, including local housing, child care, health care, transportation and taxes. Additionally, it varies expenses for children based on their age to accommodate differing child care, health care and nutrition costs at different ages. It considers housing cost variance not only by state but also by county, reflecting, for example, the considerable difference between renting or buying in New York City versus in a rural area in the same state.

In 2002 the National Center for Women’s Welfare was founded specifically to support the continued development and refinement of the SSS. As part of that effort, the center has established a network of 37 state-based organizational partners, one of which is in Colorado. The Colorado Center on Law and Policy prepares data-driven publications, policy proposals and advocacy initiatives addressing issues important to low-income Coloradans. Among its publications is The Colorado Self-Sufficiency Standard which has significantly influenced the way policies and programs for the state’s low-income workers are structured. Authored by Dr. Pearce, the Colorado SSS states: “The Self-Sufficiency Standard for Colorado describes how much families of various sizes and compositions need to make ends meet without public or private assistance in each county of Colorado. For most workers throughout Colorado, the Self-Sufficiency Standard shows that earnings well above the official Federal Poverty Level are nevertheless far below what is needed to meet families’ basic needs.

The CCLP computes the living wage for a single adult in Boulder county as $28,209 in 2015, not including additional costs we face as graduate employees, which adds an additional $3,576 (according to the CU Bursar). The sufficiency wage is even higher for many of us graduate employees who also have families.

The Self-Sufficiency Standard for Select Family Types
This table breaks the cost of living into categories such as: Housing, Child Care, Food, Transportation, Health Care, Misc, Taxes, Earned Income Tax Credit, Child Care Tax Credit, Child Tax Credit.  They break down these costs for different family types, which include: 'One Adult, One Adult'; 'One Preschooler, One Adult'; 'One Preschooler, One School Age'; 'Two Adults, One Preschooler, One School age'. The end of the table reports 'Emergency Savings Fund', with $31, $97, $149, and $53 in savings for each familty type.

The United Government of Graduate Students (UGGS) has recognized living wage as an urgent issue by passing in Spring 20163 a resolution drafted at a CRC meeting. The assembly voted on October 17th, 2016 to use the CCLP SSS to set the parameters for calculating a living wage with several adjustments (see table below) 4.

Colorado Center on Law and Policy Self-Sufficiency Standard Breakdown
Costs Monthly Annual (12-month)
Transportation $348 $4,171
Housing $1,241 $14,889
Food $368 $4,410
Medical $182 $2,183
Miscellaneous $214 $2,571
Sub-Total $2,352 $28,224
Books and Supplies $200 $1,800 (9-month value)
Mandatory Fees $197 $1,776 (9-month value)
Total $2,749 $31,800

To get a living wage of $31,800, the CRC and UGGS back-calculated the cost of taxes into the CCLP numbers, added costs as students (fees and supplies), and recommended a 12-month coverage of basic needs. We deserve a stipend that covers basic costs for 12-months, as many graduate employees struggle to find 3-month temporary employment opportunities, and there is a common, yet unofficial expectation by advisors that we will continue pursuing our research through lab work, conferences, and paper writing in the summer. Doing that, we are meant to keep producing work for the university’s reputation and cannot realistically maintain a separate full-time summer employment to live on.

What is the University Shortfall?

Our stipends don’t come close to meeting the $31,800 that would qualify as a self-sufficient wage. University administrators suggest that we receive this amount if we count our stipend, insurance contribution, tuition remission, and any potential for summer work. It is particularly offensive that the university includes tuition remission in their accounting of our compensation. This is absurd. One does not eat or pay rent with the privilege of taking courses.

University's Graduate Employee Compensation Model
FY 2016 FY 2017 FY 2018
TA Stipend - 50% 9 month base appt. $17,910 $19,074 $20,208
Insurance Contribution $3,350 $3,440 $3,630
Resident A&S Graduate Tuition Remission5 $10,530 $10,836 $11,160
Total Compensation $31,790 $33,350 $34,998

There are many errors in this model used by CU-Boulder:

  • Inclusion of Tuition Remission: Tuition remission does not come to graduate employees as income and does not help us meet our basic needs, such as food and housing. In basic terms, the University considers money they don't charge us as a source of income — for a service they require us to complete.
  • Excludes Student Fees and Books: This model, and even the CCLP sufficiency calculation, do not include the $17626 in student fees and $1,800 in books7 that graduate employees pay.
  • Not Boulder-specific: While there have been stipend adjustments over the last years, these have followed state inflation. Boulder’s cost of living has skyrocketed above the rest of the state, which adjustments have not taken into account. We are years behind in getting the pay we deserve.
  • Lack of Access to State-Sponsored Benefits: Not having a sufficiency wage is even harder for graduate employees as we also are required to keep a minimum student status. Student status may exempt graduate employees from state-sponsored benefits. Graduates who receive appointments below 50% FTE lose the ability to get food stamps8, that they would otherwise qualify for by our low wages9.
  • Assumes Full Appointment: This model assumes a 50% appointment and the possibility of summer employment. However, 33% of graduate TAs in Spring 2016 did not receive 50% appointments even when performing an equivalent amount of work. The availability of summer appointments is even lower, with no guarantees of receiving them despite the fact that graduate employees are still expected by advisors and departments to work on their research.

Our stipends are low compared to other universities. In contrast to the other PAC-12 universities, we are at the bottom if we look at our stipend as a fraction of local living wage, meaning that graduate employee life is more difficult for those who choose to come here. This hurts both the reputation and quality of CU as this financial gap already impacts recruitment and retention. Even 18% of our own graduate employees would have gone elsewhere if they could redo their graduate career. Compensation that is below a living wage standard is a major contributor as to why.

CU's Real Stipends compared to the other Pac-12 Schools
Image compares 'Advertised TA stipend' (50% FTE) as fraction of living wave estimate' from all Pac 12 schools.  CU Boulder is shown to have a lower real stipend than any of the other schools.  The other schools that we are being compared to are (in order of lowest real TA stipend to highest TA stipend): Oregon, Washington State, Berkeley, Arizona State, University of Washington, Arizona, USC, Utah, UCLA< Standford

The plot above shows the range and midpoint of advertised TA stipends as a fraction of living wage10.

What do we want?

We demand that stipends meet or exceed the living wage. In total, our recent raises have been around $1 million per year out of the university’s $823.8 million general and educational fund. On a employee basis, this addition was barely enough to cover the cost increase in CU family housing. And it did not help graduates on GPTIs and RAs appointments, whose wages also fall below the self sufficiency standard.

The university must change its model for future stipend adjustments. Stipend adjustments must account for student fees/books and city of Boulder cost-of-living, and moreover it must not include tuition remission towards meeting this standard. Housing vouchers and fee waivers could help reach a sufficiency goal. In addition, greater consistency in appointments and summer opportunities are necessary to guarantee that employees earn enough.

Most importantly, we require a binding commitment from the university that it will continue to adjust the stipend to meet the local sufficiency standard so that in the future graduate employees do not face the same struggles we do.


1 CCLP Handbook 2 Boulder City Council Notes on Living Wage 3 Living Wage Resolution 4 Meeting minutes and notes 5 Graduate tuition remission for non-resident in A&S was $27,828 in FY 2016 and $28,656 in FY 2017 6 Fees vary by number of credits, college, courses, and graduate status. This number is taken from the mandatory graduate fees for taking 7 or more credits ($881) and multipled out for both semesters: Fall 2016 and Spring 2017 Mandatory Fees 7 This was the number for books and supplies taken from the Bursar’s estimate for A&S resident graduates: Anual Cost Estimate: Graduate Colorado Resident 8 Colorado’s food program, SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), specifically exempts those with student status: SNAP 9 The maximum income level to qualify for benefits is $21,978 for a single household, which is greater than current stipends: Benefits.gov 10 This graph was made using 2014 living wage numbers from the MIT living wage calculator as a simple means for principled comparison between different locations. We chose PAC-12 as a no-hands-up-our-sleeve group of peer institutions against which CU-Boulder frequently compares itself; future research for our committee will perform this comparison against AAU peer institutions using methodologies that more closely resemble the Self Sufficiency Standard. This research is a monumental task and we request your help!
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