Graduate students air health care issues at trustees meeting

mcarroll@centredaily.comMay 10, 2014 

Azita Ranjbar left a good job at a think tank in Washington, D.C., to come to Penn State and pursue her doctorate in geography.

As she understood it, although her stipend would be minimal, she wouldn’t have to worry much about about her health care needs.

Ranjbar, and other graduate students like her, are now concerned about proposed changes to their health care coverage, such as a 30-percent increase in premiums and significant jumps in deductibles.

She was among a small group to sound off before the Penn State board of trustees Friday.

Ranjbar said that graduate students teach the general classes that are the backbones of their departments, seek high profile research grants, publish findings in top journals and represent the university at major academic conferences.

“We keep Penn State at the No. 8 ranking among top public universities in the country,” she said.

Spencer Carran, another graduate student who spoke before the board Friday, said his peers are concerned about how they will be able to make ends meet, and also whether the university will be able to continue to attract top candidates.

“The benefits that we’ve provided to families and their children has been a huge factor in letting us tap into a big pool of underutilized talent,” said Carran, who studies ecology. “It has given us a huge competitive advantage, and we are hoping to be able to keep it.”

The students fear for their colleagues whose stipends are low, as the average stipend amount is $17,000. Graduate students who don’t receive funding from their academic departments toward tuition, such as law students, and international students could face much higher premium costs.

The university has said the rising costs are out of its control due to the federal Affordable Care Act, and the administration has pledged to increase contributions to premiums. A task force has been set up to study the issue, as well.

Kevin Reuning, a graduate student studying political science, questioned whether the task force will represent the interests of his peers.

“We have our task force,” he said. “But it isn’t for us. The task force will have no public meetings. The task force will not be announced publicly. The task force will only have six graduate students, some hand-selected by the administration. The task force will not make information about our contract publicly available.”

— Matt Carroll

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