The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

Guest Opinion | Graduate student workers ask ‘Who is the university for?’

The Campaign to Organize Graduate Students says the UI’s low pay affects graduate students’ quality of life.
Ethan McLaughlin
A speaker addresses passing students during a COGS press conference on the University of Iowa Pentacrest on Wednesday, March 27, 2024.

The University of Iowa pays poverty-level wages to graduate workers despite incredible fundraising and an endowment of over $3 billion. The Board of Regents has increased tuition yet again and is desperately seeking funds from new private partnerships in order to “maintain academic excellence”. How can one school be so wealthy and yet so anxious about money?

The answer: The UI is operating more like a financial institution and less like an educational institution. Such a transformation turns students into commodities and workers into resources, ultimately harming both.


The 2023-2024 base wage for graduate teaching and research assistants working 12-month appointments ($26,059) is 25 percent less than the cost of living in Johnson County for an adult with no dependents ($35,145). A majority of graduate assistants work 9-month appointments, earning even less ($21,329). This ratio of pay to cost of living puts UI graduate workers near the bottom of the Big Ten, hurting the university’s ability to recruit and retain both faculty and graduate students.

The low salary makes living nearly impossible for any graduate student who does not have existing wealth or who is supporting dependents. Wages for graduate workers at Iowa have not kept up with inflation since 2004, which means that the vast majority of graduate workers are rent-burdened and many rely on the food bank.

Insultingly, graduate workers at the university are also charged mandatory fees every year (typically over $600 plus an additional $500 for international students). Our graduate worker union petitioned the university to eliminate these fees, as we believe no employee should pay to work. The university denied our request while arguing that we earn the full-time equivalent of $66,019. But this is disingenuous because graduate workers are almost always barred from taking paid positions over 20 hours per week (only eight workers were approved this year).


When we point to injustice at the university, we often point to the bloated salaries of administrators. But this is a side effect, not a cause, of the problem. We believe the UI has become victim to the same financialization of higher education that is seen across the U.S.

Universities now rely on large endowment investments as sources of revenue, while also borrowing high amounts to finance new projects. The result is that administrators are obligated to creditors over the needs of students, workers, and the community.

Currently, the UI has over $1 billion in long-term institutional debt, which it must prioritize over other costs. To receive good terms on these and future loans, the university needs a good credit rating. Guidelines from the credit agency Moody’s prioritize greater capacity to reduce staff and control the pay of workers, meaning that more adjunct faculty lines and fewer unions equal higher credit ratings.


When we understand university administrators and the Iowa Board of Regents as acting to prioritize the university’s credit rating and endowment, their behavior makes sense. Our leaders are acting in the interests of rich investors and rich donors, not students and workers.

The regents and administrators have power because they have money and resources, but there is another constituency at this university that has even greater potential power: students, dining hall workers, graduate teaching and research assistants, custodial staff, librarians, adjunct faculty, groundskeepers. This university works because we do. We have the power of numbers. And we wield this power when we organize.

This is why last semester, we as graduate workers shut down the regents meeting, and why this semester we gathered over 1,000 graduate worker signatures on our petition to End the Fees for graduate workers. Next year and every year after that, our union will continue to organize graduate workers at the UI.

Twenty-eight years ago yesterday on April 16, 1996, graduate student workers here organized as Campaign to Organize Graduate Students (COGS) UE Local 896. Today, our union’s organizing efforts are anchored by the same commitment we started with: This University belongs to workers and students, not to corporations, banks, or endowments. A democratic university that serves the interests of the many, in which education is genuinely accessible, and where teaching and research can flourish is possible.

But we must organize for it.

2023-24 Coordinating Committee

Campaign to Organize Graduate Students (COGS) UE Local 896

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