This piece, written by representatives of the Graduate Student Government about graduate student treatment with university aid, appears as part of our On the Pandemic column, featuring commentary about the COVID-19 pandemic from a diverse set of voices.

As the nation grapples with the global pandemic, Georgetown graduate students expect the university’s leadership to prioritize their financial well-being and to offer transparency about its decisions on how the ongoing semesters would be run. Instead, the university regularly neglects graduate student interests and demonstrates blatant favoritism of undergraduates, engineering a deep pandemic aid disparity.

The disparate tuition discount is a primary example of this unethical treatment. While undergraduates received a 10 percent discount in the fall semester, graduate students received a meager 5 percent after the regular 3 percent tuition increase—a disparity the administration has stubbornly maintained for the Spring 2021 semester. The university’s attempted justification relied in part on an anticipated return to a hybrid status for graduate students, but as the fall semester ended, all Georgetown students remained online.

For Spring 2021, the promise is even grimmer. Some classes may be offered in-person—yet there is no sense on whether these will be 5 percent of classes, 10 percent or 50 percent. Considering the rising COVID-19 cases nationwide, it’s likely no classes will be held in-person. As a result, graduate students will be charged almost full price but given few options to pursue an almost full academic experience. To add insult to injury, the university announced that undergraduate seniors who will be returning fully to campus will still receive a 10 percent discount, drawing a sharp contrast between how university directives weigh the value of its students and their financial contributions. 

Ultimately, this behavior suggests that the university’s leadership did not regard the concerns of graduate students as important enough to give a thoughtful and comprehensive solution. These administrative acts further perpetuate divisions between undergraduate and graduate students, who both add value to the school’s academic and reputational success, while exacerbating the distrust of graduate students toward the school’s decision-makers. 

Representing all graduate students and their interests, GradGov over the summer sent a petition signed by over 1,500 graduate students asking to reconsider the tuition disparity. We believe the university’s response to the petition and its complete reluctance to even consider the reduction for the spring semester—while still agreeing to bring back the entirety of the undergraduate senior class—represent a biased outlook of campus life and distort the value of an in-person experience. GradGov published the administration’s response to our petition as a matter of public record. 

The crux of this response suggests that community building and extracurricular events are not valuable to graduate students. This assertion is preposterous: This sort of communal programming constitutes a substantial amount of graduates’ collaborative working and networking opportunities, educational aspects integral to our academic and professional success.

Graduate students have comparable campus groups, organizations, professional endeavors, and extracurricular activities to undergraduate students. In the absence of these opportunities, graduate students require appropriate aid compensation, as seen with our peers. 

The university’s response also fails to acknowledge the lack of on-campus housing for graduates and the added burden this poses during COVID-19. The administration’s negligence during fall planning—where graduate students were made to believe they would have some in-person classes up until a few weeks before the completely virtual semester began—forced graduate students to start the academic year in a frenzy. These actions directly harmed graduate students, causing the assumption of the additional financial burden to pay for expenses like housing and moving to a new city. This decision does not take into account that graduate students are more reliant on university employment, less likely to receive financial aid, and more likely to have families and dependents. This burden was felt particularly intensely by international graduate students who either moved countries on the prospect of attending in-person classes without certainty about when they would be able to return to see their families or who have had to adjust to taking courses late at night or before dawn. 

Additionally, our programs have been hindered by a virtual format that does not offer an adequate replacement for many masters and Ph.D. courses requiring clinicals, lab instruction, and in-person research. Requests for equitable tuition reduction are justified as the graduate experience has been disrupted and devalued by the pandemic and resultant campus closure to at least the same degree as the undergraduate experience.

All this points to a baseless aid disparity in the institutional handling of graduates. There are structural reasons for this: Graduate students often lack representation on critical working groups and decision-making committees. The skewed allocation of CARES Act funding between graduate and undergraduate students only further perpetuates existing gaps.  

GradGov is calling upon Georgetown University administrators to end the second-class treatment of graduate students through an equal tuition reduction, quarantine housing for graduate students, representation on committee and working groups, and resources for students to thrive in an online learning environment. Any less, and the administration will be sending an even clearer message that the university does not value graduate students’ academic, research and monetary contributions as much as it does with their undergraduate peers. 

GradGov is the Graduate Student Government, representing the graduate student body of Georgetown University.

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