Opinion: Roll back Georgia’s ‘temporary’ fees on college students

Georgia Tech prof warns degrees could become cost-prohibitive

Joshua S. Weitz is a professor of biological sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology and founding director of the Quantitative Biosciences Ph.D. program at Tech. In this guest column, he urges the state to eliminate the temporary fees imposed on graduate students by the Board of Regents to compensate for decreases in state funding.

Not only have those fees never been eliminated, Weitz says they have increased, placing what he considers an unreasonable burden on the ambitious and smart students we are counting on to lead innovation in Georgia.

By Joshua S. Weitz

Monday marks the start of “Graduate Student Appreciation Week” at Georgia Tech. The week is intended to celebrate the critical contributions of master’s and doctoral students who come from Georgia and other states and from across the globe to develop the next algorithm, device, drug, or material that could change our world for the better.

As a professor and founding director of the Quantitative Biosciences Ph.D. program at Georgia Tech, I fully support this initiative. Indeed, our graduate program faculty recognize that little things – like this appreciation week – can make a difference in the long-term satisfaction and productivity of students.

But little things are not enough.

Students must live in Atlanta to make the research and training experience possible. Atlanta is becoming an increasingly expensive place to live. For all students – particularly those with limited financial resources – doing a doctorate at Georgia Tech is in danger of becoming cost-prohibitive. One of the reasons are mandatory student “fees.”

A little more than 10 years ago, the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia voted to implement tuition increases and “temporary student fees” to help offset declining contributions from the state.

The initial fee? $100 per semester.

This “temporary” fee has not disappeared. Instead, the fee has grown and grown. Right now, the fees exceed $1,000 per fall and spring semester, plus a summer fee.

I’m sure many of you would be thrilled to have seen a 10-fold increase in salary over the past decade? Wait, that didn’t happen? Graduate students certainly have not seen such increases either, far from it.

A typical 12 month salary for a graduate student in 2009 in my department was approximately $22,000. Now it’s $27,000. However, graduate students pay approximately $2,750 in cumulative annual fees.

In effect, the bulk of student salary increases have been eaten-up by fees. As a result, graduate student stipends have actually decreased when accounting for inflation.

Joshua S. Weitz is a professor of biological sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He is also the founding director of the Quantitative Biosciences Ph.D. program at Georgia Tech.

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As a professor and graduate studies director, I am deeply worried this practice of ever-increasing fees has been allowed to continue for far too long within the University System of Georgia without recognition of the pernicious effect fees have on recruitment, retention, and overall satisfaction -- these issues won't be fixed with a week of appreciation.

Instead, the best way to show our appreciation is to make a structural change.

Temporary fees should be just that: temporary. Ten years is too long a run to balance higher education budgets on the backs of students – undergraduate and graduate students alike.

It is time for Georgia politicians to work with the leaders of the University System of Georgia and identify a sustainable model: supporting higher education and the innovation, jobs, resources, and opportunities it brings to the state.

The time is ripe for change. Georgia Tech remains the only Georgia public institution of higher education that is a member of the American Association of Universities; an elite group of 62 leading research universities in the United States and Canada.

Based on a compilation of publicly available data, guess who's ranked in the top 5 of these universities in imposing student fees? Georgia Tech.

We should strive to be No. 1, for the right reasons. For fees, the median value amongst American Association of Universities institutions is $1,128, less than half of what Georgia Tech graduate students now pay. That seems a good place to start.