What is a COLA?
COLA stands for “Cost-of-Living Adjustment.” This adjustment represents the amount of money per month that a typical teaching assistant on a specific University of California (UC) campus would need in order to be brought out of rent burden. The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development defines rent burden as spending over 30 percent of your monthly take-home pay on rent. The current contract between UAW 2865 (the union that represents many, but not all UC graduate student employees) and the UC system does guarantee a 3 percent salary increase per year to account for inflation. However, this increase does not keep up with the dramatic rise in the cost of living that we are seeing across California and UC campuses. As a result, graduate students across the UC system are facing a significant and growing burden from our housing costs.
How did the COLA movement start?
The COLA movement started at UC Santa Cruz in September of 2019. Graduate students at UC Santa Cruz gave notice to their university administration that they wanted a cost of living adjustment of $1,412 a month to address their rising housing costs and overall cost of living. After exhausting official channels and other means for communicating their concerns, they announced a grading strike on December 9, 2019. They are still withholding fall and winter grades. In response to intimidation and threats of discipline from UC Santa Cruz, they are engaged in a full graduate student strike as of February 10th. From the first days of the strike, graduate students faced an excessive police presence (including police officers brought in from across the Bay Area and other UC campuses), resulting in arrests and injuries to peaceful student protestors. On the evening of February 14th, faculty and graduate students received letters from UC Santa Cruz Executive Vice Chancellor Lori Kletzer which threatened mass dismissal of teaching assistants who failed to submit grades, end the strike and return to work by February 21st. Graduate students have pledged to continue the strike in the face of these grave threats.
You can learn more about what launched the movement at UC Santa Cruz and see a timeline of events on their website.
Following UC Santa Cruz’s lead, UC Santa Barbara was the second UC campus to form a COLA campaign. Nine of ten UC campuses are currently involved in the COLA movement: Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, San Diego, Berkeley, Davis, Irvine, Merced, and Riverside.
Why do we need a COLA at UCSB?
Because of the high cost of living in places like Santa Cruz, Goleta, and Santa Barbara, graduate students are paying a significant percentage of their salaries toward rent and many of us are living paycheck to paycheck. Most graduate students at UC Santa Barbara are rent burdened, meaning that they pay 30 percent of their monthly income towards housing. This includes those of us who live in partially subsidized university housing. A typical teaching assistant pays 51 percent of their wages to housing costs at average rates. Many of us pay much more.
Why are UCSB grad students organizing for a COLA now?
UCSB graduate students are inspired by the actions of the brave graduate students and their supporters at UC Santa Cruz. Their actions have led UCSB graduate students to collectively examine our living and working conditions at the university. The result is the conclusion that we, too, need a COLA to live justly and sustainably in graduate school.
What are UCSB's COLA demands?
Standing in solidarity with our colleagues at UC Santa Cruz and those across the UC system who suffer under similar conditions, we outlined four core demands of the university:
- That the university bring us out of rent burden
- That this be done without raising graduate or undergraduate tuition, campus fees, or rent for university-owned housing
- That there is a guarantee of nonretaliation for those who participate in the COLA movement
- That any solutions to raise our standard of living account for the greater financial needs of those graduate students who care for dependents
You can read the UC Santa Barbara COLA demand letter here.
Are UCSB graduate students on strike?
Yes! Along with grads at UCSC, UCD, UCSC, and UCB.
Why don't grad students find off-campus jobs to pay for their basic needs?
Graduate students who face financial hardship at UCSB often do work multiple jobs, including off-campus. Because of the demands of graduate students’ schedules (which includes time spent grading, preparing to teach class or lab, doing course homework, reading and writing for research projects) and the need for flexibility to travel for research, conferences, and other professional activities, off-campus jobs are incompatible with our schedules and can negatively impact our ability to complete these academic and professional requirements. On-campus positions through a university organization, department, or office align better with our schedules, but these are limited. International students are even more limited in their employment options because they generally are not allowed to work off-campus and can only work a maximum of twenty hours per week as a condition of their visas.
Our degree requirements are designed around the assumption that research and teaching are our primary (if not our only) professional responsibilities. Graduate students have the option to petition for part-time student status (a very recent change, which only came about after COLA organizing was already underway) in order to work off campus, but this comes with many restrictions and does not change the fact more hours devoted to off-campus work means fewer hours devoted research and degree requirements. In some cases, graduate students are contractually forbidden from working additional jobs because of the negative impact it has on our progress toward completing our degrees; they may face retaliation or decrease in funding from the university if they do so. Teaching- and research-related jobs are crucial forms of experience and preparation for a career in academia or other research environments, and taking on a part-time job unrelated to these is taking time away from our professional development. Having the freedom to focus exclusively on academic work would be the preference for most, but immediate financial needs cannot be ignored.
Who else can get involved?
Everyone! Any and all solidarity from graduate and undergraduate students, faculty, and staff at UC Santa Barbara is important. Start talking to your friends on other UC campuses about COLA too— everyone will benefit from a COLA, and the more people and campuses on board, the stronger our movement will be!
How can I support strikers?
- Contribute to the COLA campaign funds:
- Contact UC administrators to express your support of the strikers and strong objections to the excessive police presence and threats of retaliation at UC Santa Cruz.
- UCSC Chancellor Cynthia Larive: (831) 459-4291, firstname.lastname@example.org
- UCSC Executive Vice Chancellor Lori Kletzer: 831-459-3885, email@example.com
- UCSC Dean of Graduate Studies Quentin Williams: (831) 459-3336, firstname.lastname@example.org
- UC President Janet Napolitano: (510) 987-9074, email@example.com
- UC Board of Regents: (510) 987-9220, firstname.lastname@example.org
- Contact your government representatives to express your support of the strikers and strong objections to the excessive police presence at UC Santa Cruz.
- California Governor Gavin Newsom
- California Senators
- California State Representatives
- Education and Labor Congresspeople
What is a graduate student’s relationship to the university? What is their role?
Graduate students (students pursuing a Master’s degree or a doctorate) are usually both students and employees of the university. Our primary responsibilities as students are taking courses for our degree requirements and pursuing our original research for major projects, theses, and dissertations. Graduate students can be employed as a teaching assistant (TA), when we’re in the classroom or a lab as an instructor, or as a graduate student researcher (GSR), when we’re paid to work with a faculty member on research rather than teaching. In addition to our roles as students and employees, graduate students contribute to department and campus life as mentors to undergraduates, event planners, leaders of academic and social organizations, and more. We are also expected to participate in professional activities beyond the university, such internships and academic conferences.
How does UCSB pay graduate students?
In the UC system, graduate school is typically an opportunity to “be paid to go to school” rather than “paying to go to school” as undergraduates do (though UC Santa Barbara also has “professional” graduate programs that do not usually offer students funding and charge them tuition). The idea is that the university is paying us to do research, create new knowledge, and educate students and that this service has value to the university and to society as a whole. This opportunity is widely understood in the academic sector as an “entry-level job” on the path to future employment in academia or industry that provides education and work experience for those roles in exchange for an essential service to the university.
Based on this model, graduate students’ primary expenses are covered in two ways. (1) The university covers our tuition, fees, and health insurance (with some caveats and exceptions). (2) This coverage is offered on the condition that graduate students work as employees of the university, for which we receive a salary. Our salaries vary based on whether we are a teaching assistant (teaching sections or labs), a teaching associate (teaching a course as a primary instructor), or a graduate student researcher. Some quarters, we may also be eligible for fellowship support, which refers to scholarships meant to waive tuition and fees and support our basic living expenses while we focus on our courses, degree requirements, and research projects. These scholarships are generally competitive and are offered on a limited basis. We may also be paid for other on-campus jobs.
While support varies a great deal from student to student, this academic year the pretax salaries for common graduate student positions are:
- Teaching Assistant: $2,435 per month, or $21,912 per year (50 percent appointment, nine months)
- Teaching Associate: $2,551 per month, or $22,957 per year (Step 1, 50 percent appointment, nine months)
- Graduate Student Researcher: $1,729 per month, or $20,742 per year (Step 1, 50 percent appointment, twelve months)
A 50 percent appointment refers to twenty hours of contracted work per week, which is considered a standard appointment. A significant number of graduate students work 25 percent appointments, which are ten hours of work a week, at half the rate of a 50 percent appointment. These rates are standard across all UC campuses, regardless of local cost of living.
Graduate students do not always have university funding. Some departments offer no departmental funding to their students, including tuition, fee, and health insurance waivers. Those that do guarantee it in the form of TAships or GSR positions set a specific number of years when we enter our program—and sometimes that number is one. If we have been in our programs longer than that time period, then our funding is determined quarter by quarter based on the funds that our individual departments have available or what positions we can find in other departments on campus. When we do have department funding, there are restrictions on how much we can work. For example, we have to petition to work more than twenty hours per week if we want to take on extra sections or a part-time position with an office on campus for additional income. As a condition of their visas, international graduate students are not allowed to work more than twenty hours per week at all during the academic year.