When Corey Knox decided to go back to graduate school, she quit her job as a research assistant to focus on her studies. However, she knew that plan would work only if she was able to get additional hours as a graduate assistant in her College of Education program.
But just before Thanksgiving, Knox and other UA graduate assistants were told that they were now limited to working 20 hours a week starting in the spring semester in order for the university to comply with the federal Affordable Care Act.
According to UA Human Resources director Helena Rodrigues, employers with at least 50 workers must provide health insurance to full-time employees. And at the UA, anyone who works 30 hours or more is considered a full-time employee.
Rodrigues says implementing the mandate has been complicated for the university and other higher-education institutions because "we don't have one type of employee, but employees who are graduates, undergraduates, seasonal and temporary staff, and full time, like myself, who work the entire calendar year."
Those who work full time are provided health insurance, while graduate assistants—primarily students doing research for their Ph.D.s or working as teaching assistants—are provided a student health plan that also meets the ACA and is administered through the Campus Health office.
While the UA Graduate College is working with Knox and about 75 other graduate assistants to figure out how to honor contracts and promises that guaranteed these students 30 hours of work per week or more, Knox says the timing made her wonder if it was such a good idea to go back to school after all.
"The first time anybody heard about this was in an email sent to graduate students on Nov. 17, right before Thanksgiving," Knox says.
"The email stated that everybody can only work 20 hours a week as of the spring semester. The timing ... right before Thanksgiving and then Christmas break. ... It felt like the intent was so that people couldn't advocate for themselves. It made it a very difficult time."
Knox says she recognizes that graduate students may be perceived as more privileged than most students, but in this economy many grad students don't fit the traditional student stereotype.
"Essentially this is a pay cut with only a month and a half notice. ... What did they expect students to do? I was thinking about how to leave the program. I have two kids and I'm in my late 40s. (The administration's) reaction to students seemed lackadaisical, assuming we can all just run to mom to get more money for school," she says.
Andrew Carnie, dean of the UA Graduate College, says it was no one's intent to prevent students from advocating for themselves. There's also no way to delay following the mandate as some have suggested. He said what's taking place now is called a census period that forces the UA to measure the hours graduate students and others are employed, as required by the mandate.
"We're trying to accommodate people who have been given contracts or those promised additional hours or additional pay in order to make a decision to go to graduate school," Carnie says.
"We really are trying to find ways to make sure those students are not harmed in some way."
The number of students affected isn't huge according to Carnie, about 75 students out of a total number of 2,951 UA graduate assistants, but "we made the announcement the minute we figured it out. National implementation of this for students has been unclear. The minute we knew graduate students were subject to these restrictions we reacted."
Carnie agrees that a 20-hour limit is conservative, but it helps the UA comply and allows some departments to pay additional hours as long as they stay below 30 hours per student. And while he understands the stress it has caused some students, he said there are other reasons why students shouldn't be provided additional hours that could change their status from student to employee. Financial aid can be affected as well as the visa status for students from other countries, he said.
"Also in this case, we are the odd university out, Carnie said. "Most of our peer universities (already have) have a limit, and that's true of NAU and ASU. There's always an exception but for the most part, our peer universities limit the hours grad assistants work, and that was prior to the ACA."
However, according to minutes from the November 2013 UA Faculty Senate meeting, in which Rodrigues gave a presentation, ASU is implementing a policy of 25 hours per week for graduate assistants and NAU is implementing a policy of 29 hours a week.
Carnie says it's important to see how the issue of restricted hours plays out at the federal level, but also to "try to be nimble and make the right kind of adjustments to make sure graduate students are fairly treated and compensated. Really, our goal is that graduate students are properly compensated and we want to come up with the right solution given the federal mandates."
Zachary Brooks, president of the UA Graduate and Professional Student Council, says the GPSC heard from graduate assistants right away when the cut in hours was announced. It has been discussing the issue with students and administrators, and posted a list of frequently asked questions about the ACA on its website, gpsc.arizona.edu.
Brooks says it was obvious from the beginning that the UA was wrestling with the ACA, but the information going out to graduate assistants was unexpected and caused a lot of panic among students and some faculty.
However, the experience has also shined a light on other issues affecting graduate students. Brooks says one frustration is federal loans—as of July 1, 2013, graduate students have to pay a higher interest rate than their undergraduate counterparts.
"The costs for going to school keep going up and the ACA was just another federal policy, coupled with state cuts in education, that make going back to school more difficult," Brooks says.
"A lot of people don't believe in grad student education, that it's a luxury," but 36 percent of UA graduate assistants teach first- and second-year undergraduate courses, and many also do clinical, administrative and research chores in their departments.
Knox, the graduate assistant in the College of Education, says she remains committed to her science education program and is sticking it out.
"I can get jobs, but for me it was the timing and not knowing. If students had known this summer, I wonder if they would have come into the graduate programs," she says.
"I would have likely made a very different choice."