March 19, 2020
The University of Pennsylvania expects its graduate student workers to bear unreasonable financial costs that become obstacles to our education. This problem manifests across the graduate schools as delays or gaps in students’ payments. Most pressingly, many who receive a stipend do not receive their first payment until the last day of September—even though the semester begins at the end of August and most graduate students have to sign leases starting as early as August 1st. The problem of delayed payment is only one of the financial burdens graduate students face as members of their department. We frequently front departmental costs like dinners for speakers or research-related travel and wait months before reimbursement. Further, at some point during their time at Penn most graduate students are expected to go entire summers without pay, despite continuing to teach, research, and publish. The unfairness of this system is obvious: it privileges wealthy students and forces those who are not to fall into debt. As graduate workers at UPenn we oppose in the strongest terms all unreasonable gaps in payment. In this petition we call for an immediate end to start-of-semester delayed payment.
Delayed payment presents an unequal obstacle to graduate education for many grad workers. Low-income students may not have the savings to relocate and work for a month without pay; international students have much higher costs associated with moving to the university; and students who are disabled or parenting may face greater expenses than average due to healthcare and childcare. While it is possible to request a stipend advance from the university, this fact is poorly advertised, overly bureaucratic, and treats delayed payment as an individual matter rather than a university-wide issue. We do not believe a student who cannot afford to go over a month without pay after moving to a new city should be treated as an exception. As a first step towards addressing this issue, we demand that all graduate students receive their first payment before their program begins. This demand should be met in Fall of 2020 by moving the first stipend payment of the academic year to the end of August at the latest. We invite the Dean of Graduate Studies to discuss this with us in order to come to a fair solution. Ultimately, however, addressing the problem of payment will require larger changes, such as guaranteed summer funding for all graduate students in a 12-month stipend—as is already the case in the Biomedical Graduate Studies PhD Program.
In GET-UP, we understand delayed payment as representative of the larger culture of a university that assumes wealth and poverty as an unfortunate or temporary anomaly. The expenses involved in starting graduate school—from exorbitant fees for applications and the GRE, to the cost of moving across the country or globe, to having to secure a residence, purchase class materials, and cover one’s cost of living for well over a month—are immense. If the university feels that a majority of its student body is able to front these costs without issue, it is clear who they think that student body is and should be. Many students accumulate years of debt to cover these costs. Many more, whom we will never know, choose not to apply to or attend a university that treats them as exceptions to the rule of wealth. If we wish for Penn to embrace students of different backgrounds and means, delayed payment must end now!