On May 6th, the Board of Visitors (BOV) voted unanimously in favor of a tuition increase for graduate students and an across-the-board increase in student fees for all students. This is the second time the BOV increased graduate tuition during the pandemic, with last year’s increase up by $450 and again this year by $441. Prior to the May 2021 vote, students submitted 51 written comments and collected 257 signatures in opposition to the tuition and fee increases. In over 20 pages of comments opposing the tuition hike, graduate students shared their stories of a crushing pandemic year and detailed how back-to-back tuition increases would substantially impact their lives. The economic toll of tuition increases is unmistakable:

“As a result of the pandemic, I have incurred multiple new expenses and experienced severe economic hardship. I was laid off in early March, separated from my family for more than 8 months, and had to find new housing (paying all the associated fees: moving costs, airfare, rent deposits, etc). … I’m still working towards the same degree, receiving the same education, and studying at the same university. Yet, over a two-year period my tuition will have increased by $891.”

In her statements to the BOV, then Graduate and Professional Student Assembly (GAPSA), President Lilianna Deveneau pointed out that 70% of the money that has been requested through the STAY Mason Student Support Fund was denied to those who applied for it. In the face of this overwhelming evidence, persistent financial hardship among graduate students seems hard to deny. 

How did the BOV respond to these struggling students? With a perfunctory, “Thank You.” It is unclear who on the Finance and Land Use Committee, the body responsible for budgetary matters, considered these students’ objections. What is certain is that the members of the committee did not heed these students’ concerns. The tuition increases passed unanimously by roll call vote. 

In place of substantive engagement with student concerns, the board presented the tuition increases as serving the best interest of graduate students. Statements made by Rene Stewart O’Neal, the associate vice president for Strategic Budget and Planning, during the BOV’s meeting summarize the board and administration’s reasoning for, once again, increasing the cost of education at Mason:

“In terms of our graduate enrollment, there’s been a notable increase in student demand for graduate program offerings. The modest increase of $441 will go towards supporting additional graduate assistantships, an increase in the average amount of the graduate assistantship stipend, and an increase in the number of post-doctoral fellowships, which is an important accelerator for research…. As I said, some of that $441 increase in the graduate student tuition will directly benefit graduate students, because we are going to be using some of that to increase the graduate, the amount of graduate stipends on average, by about $800 for a full-time nine-month stipend for a graduate assistantship. We’re also increasing the absolute number of graduate assistantships, as well as overall support for graduate students.”

If the university is not experiencing an ongoing financial crisis why are they voting unanimously to raise tuition costs?  The committee’s justifications include: (1) a projected increase in enrollment in graduate programs during next fiscal year, (2) the “modest” nature of the tuition increase, and (3) the allocation of a portion of the new revenue toward support for graduate students. 

This budgetary reasoning asserts that increased enrollment means prices should go up. If enrollment is increasing, why would the university have a financial need to charge higher tuition rates? The university weathered the initial COVID-19 financial storm and is now rewarding its storm-battered students with a tuition increase. Making graduate education more expensive because more people need it is an opportunistic exploitation of students seeking professional credentials.   

The BOV has presented no institutional research to suggest that tuition increases would be modest in their effect on students’ lives. Students’ written comments as well as input from Mason student leaders and student organizations have made a compelling case that tuition increases will harm graduate students. The BOV has produced no evidence to the contrary, simply asserting that an $891 increase over two years is “modest.”

The claim that increasing tuition will “support” students is illogical and obscures where this new revenue will go.  What portion of this graduate tuition increase will go towards direct financial support for graduate students?  The BOV proceedings do not outline what percentage of the new tuition revenue will be allocated to increases in graduate student funding, nor do they enumerate how many new assistantships will be created. Charging students more so they can earn more is clearly illogical. How can a marginal increase in support possibly outway the burden imposed by a mandatory tuition increase on every single graduate student? 

We, the Graduate Committee of the GMU Chapter of the AAUP argue that the university is disregarding the hardships of COVID-19 that continue to roil the lives of graduate and undergraduate students alike. The complete lack of engagement with students harmed by these budgetary decisions is deeply unsettling. The university is not being held accountable to the students they serve. Our AAUP Graduate Committee is organizing to stand up for graduate students who have become a target for financial exploitation. We must stand together and organize to effect change! 

Graduate Committee, GMU chapter of the American Association of University Professors can be contacted at aaupmason@gmail.com, Twitter @aaupmason, website: aaupmason.org