Activities and programs may be wonderful community-building events, but graduate students say that more help dealing with difficult practical problems would go a long way toward creating closer ties to the Institute. Without exception, everyone’s biggest concern is finding affordable housing. Rents in the Boston area are among the steepest in the nation, and students end up spending as much as 40 percent of their stipend on housing alone. Rents for campus residences are about 40 percent below market rates, but competition for those spaces is stiff. Even though two new residences have opened in the last two years, only about 45 percent of the graduate student population can live on campus. In the last three years, stipends have increased about 6 percent annually. No other group of MIT wage earners received a higher increase, according to Provost Robert Brown, but some claim it’s still not enough.
“Living off campus is a major downside at MIT,” says Andreas Woess, a second-year graduate student at Sloan. “MIT needs to either build more housing or subsidize off-campus students.”
The Graduate Student Council would like to tie annual stipend increases to the increase in local housing costs, but Colbert cautions that stipend levels have already been pushed aggressively. “There’s a trade-off between how much of the research funding goes for equipment and research infrastructure and how much goes to graduate students,” he says.
Medical insurance and child-care are two other significant costs graduate students face. All students are required to carry medical insurance, and the fees keep going up. This year alone, the cost of MIT’s only health-care plan for graduate students jumped 17 percent. Colbert expects the price to increase by at least 10 percent next year. “The costs have risen to the point that we have to do something about it,” says Colbert. But what and how are not yet clear.
Nor is it clear how to provide affordable child-care for graduate students’ children. “It’s such an expensive proposition; we don’t know what to do about it yet,” says Colbert. But, he acknowledges, it’s an issue the Institute needs to address within the next few years.
Last year, communication between graduate students and members of the central administration was strained by what many saw as the administration’s arbitrary decision to alleviate crowding in undergraduate residence halls by housing some undergraduates in graduate student housing. A new student- activity fee, which primarily supports athletics and operations in the new Zesiger Athletic Center, also contributed to the tension. Graduate students were unhappy with the decision because the new fee comes out of their stipends, further reducing their income.
“We need to create a bit more transparency in the decision-making process,” says Wijesinghe. “The administration made a string of decisions that had no input from students.”
Chancellor Clay agrees, saying, “We were often finding ourselves on the verge of making a decision without having given as much time and thought and involvement to the stakeholders as we should have.” As a result, Clay created the housing strategy group, composed of students, administrators, faculty, housemasters, and staff, to advise him on a host of long- and short-term housing issues.
Although the issues may seem thorny and student needs seem difficult to meet, attention to graduate community concerns will continue to evolve as students’ demand for balanced lives grows and Ike Colbert’s passion for the highest-quality experience takes shape. “We’re producing world-class scientists and engineers who are significant players in businesses and industries that are critical to the world,” he says. “We should have those people be able to look back at MIT and say, I not only learned a lot, I had a great time.’”