Graduate teaching assistants play an important role at universities — giving lectures, grading papers, preparing exams — but federal data show that those working in San Diego earn wages considerably lower than their counterparts in places where the cost of living is much cheaper.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, San Diego’s part-time student workers earn the full-time equivalent of about $32,000 per year. That’s about $1,000 higher than the average salary for graduate assistants statewide — but it’s more than $10,000 less than what they make in Utah, Nebraska and West Virginia.
Graphic: Joe Yerardi, inewsource | Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
Those three states pay the highest teaching assistant wages in the nation, yet they have much lower costs of living. According to CNN’s cost-of-living calculator, a $35,000 salary in San Diego is the equivalent of earning $22,000 in Lincoln, Nebraska, home to the University of Nebraska.
Union leaders who represent California student workers say there could be many reasons for the disparity in pay. They say schools in some states could pay more because they have better funding, while other schools may offer benefits instead of higher wages.
“We’ve been very, very successful at winning a lot of non-wage benefits for our members,” said David McCleary, president of UAW Local 2865, the union that represents more than 14,000 student workers across the University of California system. “Our workers have all of their tuition and fees paid while they are working.”
The salary data for graduate teaching assistants are a bit misleading. The federal government’s calculations of estimated annual salaries are based on full-time employment, but these student workers typically work part time.
“Thirty two thousand dollars, that’s actually just an estimate. In reality, people earn less than half of that a year. And that’s if they’re lucky,” said Sandip Roy, president of UAW 4123, which represents more than 9,000 student employees at 23 California State University campuses. “Most teaching [assistants] across the California university system make less than a thousand dollars a month.”
Unlike the UC system, Roy said most graduate teaching assistants in the California State University system have to pay full tuition. He said earning low wages in expensive cities like San Diego can be a huge burden for graduate students.
“It is a big concern for us,” Roy said. “If your basic needs — food and shelter — are not being met, how does the university expect us to engage in any intellectual sort of discourse.”
Officials from the University of California San Diego were unavailable for comment on Friday. In an email, a spokeswoman for San Diego State University declined to comment, noting that graduate assistant contracts are handled by California State University’s Chancellor’s Office.