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After Students Withhold Payment, UChicago Will Cover Controversial Fee For Doctoral Programs Starting This Fall

Organizers with labor union Graduate Students United said the university must now cancel its student services fee for master's students — and forgive all unpaid fees.

University of Chicago students hold a banner reading "Cancel SSF" — shorthand for the student services fee — at an October 2021 rally.
Anna Gatdula
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HYDE PARK — University of Chicago doctoral students will have hundreds in annual fees covered as part of their funding packages starting in the fall after students pledged not to pay the controversial charge until it was reduced or dropped.

UChicago’s graduate student services fee is $1,296 for students attending three quarters per year. Starting in the autumn quarter, all divisions and schools will cover the fee for their doctoral students.

“The university will expand its support for the graduate student services fee to divisions and schools that were not already including the fee in their Ph.D. funding packages,” spokesperson Gerald McSwiggan said.

The announcement comes amid a “fee refusal campaign” by the labor union Graduate Students United that drew the support of more than a dozen directors of graduate studies at the university.

Students declined to pay the “problematic” and “unfair” fee, while demanding officials publicize what the university uses the money for.

“After we had accumulated $100,000 in so-called debt to the university, the university functioned totally fine,” said Rina Sugawara, the union’s co-president and a doctoral student in the music department. “It was a clear sign for us about the unnecessary ask that this fee actually was.”

McSwiggan did not share a budget breakdown showing what the fee pays for, saying Monday “many critical services” within graduate programs are possible because of the fee.

These include medical and counseling services available through UChicago Student Wellness and “a wide range of programs” through the Office of Campus and Student Life, including disability services, a deans-on-call program, recreational facilities, student government budgets and immigration services for international students, McSwiggan said.

“The vast majority of graduate students” paid the fee for the ongoing winter quarter, McSwiggan said. About 500 people signed a pledge refusing to pay the fee as of last summer, while about 10,500 grad students attend the university.

The Office of the Bursar may place a registration hold on the accounts of students with unpaid charges. Holds are placed beginning the sixth week of each quarter and bar students from registering for future quarters, getting a transcript, graduating or receiving their diploma.

Students can contact the bursar’s office to discuss payment options, McSwiggan said.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
The campus of The University of Chicago in Hyde Park.

Sugawara, who said she owes $1,900 in student services fees, will continue withholding payment.

“Having a registration hold means, as an international student, my visa is at risk,” Sugawara said. “Obviously, we’re going to continue to fight how ridiculous that is — that they would possibly deport a student for not paying this fee [when] we don’t even know what it covers.”

Graduate students in the music department have racked up about $30,000 in unpaid fees, for which they’re fundraising to cover “in the worst-case scenario,” Sugawara said.

While securing funding for doctoral students’ service fees is a victory, “to end the campaign now would be a concession,” Sugawara said. Students will push the the university to cover the fee for master’s students, forgive the debt for all who withheld payment and reimburse “anyone who paid this fee in the last year,” she said.

“We firmly believe [the fee’s inclusion in funding packages] was a sort of carrot, and the stick is coming,” Sugawara said. “We can’t end this campaign without fighting one last time for the fee to be canceled [for] all grad students.”

Refusing to pay the service fee created “a bureaucratic mess for the institution,” which likely helped sway administrators into covering the fee moving forward, said Sam Herrmann, a second-year master’s student in the Divinity School.

“With enough people withholding, you now have to track down all of these people to get them on payment plans,” said Herrmann, who has racked up $1,200 in unpaid fees after about a year of withholding payment.

With the fee practically waived for doctoral students, master’s students should be the next group for whom the “completely unnecessary fee” should be covered, Herrmann said. He plans to graduate with his master’s degree in June and awaits a decision on his application to the Divinity School’s doctoral program.

Master’s students “serve a purpose, and I think it’s something that we have to keep advocating for,” Herrmann said. “It’s a huge win just to have made the progress that we have so far. My involvement in the union is not just for myself individually, but to collectively build a better university. We want to keep pushing.”

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