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Graduate Assistant Fact Sheet

Revised October 2016

Many graduate students at Penn State receive funding packages in the form of graduate assistantships that involve teaching-, research-, or (in a few cases) administrative support-related activities.  Below are some important facts pertaining to graduate assistantships (and where applicable, graduate fellowships and traineeships):

Stipend and Tuition Grant-In-Aid

A graduate assistant (GA) receives a stipend commensurate with his/her appointment type (e.g., ¼, ½- or ¾-time) and grade level (e.g., grade 12), with stipend amounts for each grade established annually by the University. Graduate students appointed to an assistantship are expected to be involved in assistantship activities for a total of 18 weeks per semester (36 weeks for a fall/spring assistantship appointment). For example, for the current (2016) academic year, for a fall appointment, the stipend for a ½-time, grade12 assistantship is $19,035, and for a ½-time grade 14 assistantship is $20,925. For Fall 2016, over 94% of all assistantships were ½-time appointments, with the stipend amount for all ½-time appointments across the University averaging $20,837 (for 36 weeks of, on average, 20 hrs. of assistantship activities per week), equating to an hourly rate of $28.94 per hour.

In many cases, graduate students on fall/spring assistantship appointments receive some form of additional support in the summer (e.g., wage payroll, scholarship funds, FT-II Lecturer appointment, etc.), so that total annual support is often greater than the fall//spring assistantship alone. 
  
Stipend amounts are raised on an annual basis equivalent to the average University raise for that year.  For the last five academic years (2012/13 through 2016/17), the increase versus the previous year has averaged just about 3%.  

In addition to the stipend, regardless of the type of assistantship (¼-, ½- or ¾-time), all graduate assistants (PA-Resident and Non-PA Resident) receive a grant-in-aid that covers the full cost of tuition for the semester in which the assistantship is awarded.  Graduate students awarded a fellowship or traineeship also receive a stipend and typically a grant-in-aid for tuition.  For 2016-17, the GA rate tuition paid by an assistantship (non-601/611 registrations) totals $17,000 for a fall/spring appointment.  

Graduate students who have held an assistantship, fellowship or traineeship appointment for the fall and spring are also eligible for summer tuition assistance (STAP) of up to 9 credits of required coursework during the subsequent summer (without needing to be on a summer appointment), at the prevailing applicable tuition rate depending upon their residency status and college/program/discipline. For Summer 2016, the total summer graduate tuition benefit for 9 credits of coursework plus fees at University Park (UP) ranges from $7,598-$14,627.  

Workload

  • A graduate student on a ¼-time assistantship appointment normally registers for 9 to 14 credits per semester (5-7 per summer session) and is expected to provide teaching, research, or administrative assistance that, on average, consists of approximately 10 hours of assistantship activities a week.  
     
  • A graduate student on a ½-time assistantship appointment normally registers for 9 to 12 credits per semester (4-6 per summer session) and is expected to provide teaching, research, or administrative assistance that, on average, consists of approximately 20 hours of assistantship activities a week.  
     
  • A graduate student on a ¾-time assistantship appointment normally registers for 6-8 credits per semester (3-4 per summer session) and is expected to provide teaching, research, or administrative assistance that, on average, consists of approximately 30 hours of assistantship activities a week.  
     
  • The majority of graduate assistantships at Penn State (over 94% for Fall 2016) are ½-time appointments (i.e., 20 hrs. of assistantship activities, on average, per week).  The departments or programs awarding the assistantships provide the graduate assistant with the necessary training and mentorship to perform effectively and to render the assistantship a positive learning opportunity and important component of the educational experience. 

Health Insurance

Penn State subsidizes health insurance (medical, dental and vision) for graduate assistants and full-time fellows and trainees.  Health insurance is required for our international students.  The Penn State Student Health Insurance Plan (SHIP), which is underwritten by Aetna Student Health, has the highest actuarial value for a medical plan allowed under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), equivalent to a “Platinum” plan as defined by the ACA metallic tiers.  The SHIP provides robust coverage tailored to meet student needs through input by graduate student representatives to the Student Insurance Advisory Board (SIAB) and the Student Insurance Administrative Council (SIAC).  The SHIP provides coverage for the entire academic year, including summer.  In addition, most services at University Health Services (UP) and the MSHMC Fishburn Clinic (Hershey) are 100% covered, with deductibles waived.

The University contributes 80% of the annual medical premium for graduate assistants, fellows and trainees, and 75-76% for dependent coverage.  For 2016-17, the University contribution for graduate assistants on fall/spring appointments is $2,636.80 of the total annual premium cost of $3,296 for an individual plan, and $10,151.80 of the $13,184 premium to cover a family (a student plus spouse/domestic partner and 2 or more children).  Beginning in 2015-16, Federal law required “premium parity”, with premiums for dependents required to be the same rate as for the individual student.  This resulted in a modest increase in individual rates, but a significant decrease in rates for family coverage.  

The University also contributes 80% of the premium costs for Individual and 70% for Family plans for dental and vision insurance for graduate assistants (and typically for fellows and trainees, as well).

The increasing complexity of the health insurance market and impact of implementation of the ACA in driving required changes to the structure and costs of the SHIP will continue to present challenges.  However, Penn State is committed to meeting those challenges, as reflected by the Platinum value of its SHIP, with the highest possible benefits allowable under federal law.  The appointment of a Student Health Insurance Task Force in 2014, with extensive representation by graduate students and chaired by Dr. Dennis Shea, Professor of Health Policy & Administration and Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies and Outreach in the College of Health and Human Development, and one of the University’s most recognized scholars in the field of health insurance, resulted in a comprehensive report with extensive and thoughtful recommendations that are in various stages of implementation/consideration, in an effort to further mitigate rising costs.  The University is committed to robust engagement and consultation with students in regard to the provision of affordable, quality health care coverage for our all students. 

Value of Fall 2016 GA Support Packages1,2 

When the above components of an assistantship “package” are added together, the value of the support typically provided to a graduate assistant on a ½-time fall appointment, at the average stipend amount for all Fall 2016 ½-time appointments, and taking 9 credits of summer course work at UP, is estimated as follows if selecting Individual versus Family Student Health Insurance Coverage1,2:

  Individual Coverage Family Coverage

Value of Fall GA Support Packages

Average Fall 2016 1/2-time Stipend:

(36-weeks @ 20 hrs of assistantship activities)

$20,837 $20,837
2016-17 Fall/Spring GA Tuition: $17,000 $17,000

Summer 2016 UP Tuition3 & Fees (9 credits)

$7,598-14,627 $7,598-$14,627

Total Medical Insurance Subsidy: (12 months of coverage)

$2,637 $10,152

Total Dental & Vision Subsidy

(12 months of coverage)

$256 $620
Value of Total Support Package 1,2: $48,328-$55,357 $56,207-$63,236

1    Graduate students on fall/spring assistantship appointments often receive some form of additional support in the summer (e.g., wage payroll, scholarship funds, Fixed Term-II Lecturer appointment, etc.), so that total annual support is often greater than reflected for the fall/spring assistantship.

2    Actual support value will vary with assistantship type, stipend grade, number of summer credits taken and residency status, and choice of SHIP, Dental and Vision coverage (e.g., Individual, Individual & Dependent, Family, etc.). 

3    Students appointed to a fall/spring assistantship are eligible for up to 9 credits of Summer Tuition Assistance plus fees in the subsequent summer semester.  Values in above table are based upon the available Summer 2016 Tuition rates, and will be updated in the future when Summer, 2017 rates become available.  

Student Exception to FICA Tax

As of July 1, 2000, graduate assistants are no longer required to pay FICA taxes on assistantships.  This exception to the payment of FICA (Social Security and Medicare taxes) is based upon education and not employment being the predominant aspect of graduate assistants’ relationship with the University.  As a result, graduate assistants do not have 7.65% withheld from their stipend for FICA taxes.  This will amount to a savings of approximately $1,594 for the average 2016 Fall 1/2-time total stipend ($20,837). 

Paid Leave

Circumstances occasionally occur that prevent graduate assistants (including graduate teaching assistants, graduate research assistants, and graduate assistants serving as resident assistants) from performing the duties of their appointment.  Consistent with Penn State's continuous effort to support the personal and professional development of all members of our community, these guidelines seek to reduce the professional and personal stresses that can develop when graduate assistants encounter extenuating circumstances that warrant a temporary absence from their assistantship duties, while continuing their stipend and benefits.  Guidelines for Graduate Assistant Paid Leaves delineate how instances of personal and/or family illness, injury, childbirth or adoption for graduate assistants should be addressed by the unit funding the assistantship.  For information about medical and other leaves during assistantship appointments, please review the University’s Guidelines for Graduate Assistant Paid Leaves.

THE FOLLOWING ARE AVAILABLE TO ALL GRADUATE STUDENTS AT PENN STATE, INCLUDING GRADUATE ASSISTANTS:

Membership in and Representation by the Graduate and Professional Student Association

The Graduate and Professional Student Association (GPSA) is the representative body for all graduate students, including graduate assistants, and Penn State Law students (University Park campus).  

The GPSA members elect graduate students to serve on the University Faculty Senate, University Park Allocation Committee, Student Insurance Advisory Board (SIAB), Student Insurance Administrative Council (SIAC), University Health Care Advisory Council to the President, and Graduate Council.  Graduate students are elected to Graduate Council Committees, including the Committee on Research, Committee on Graduate Student and Faculty Issues, and the Joint Curricular Committee.  In addition, the President of GPSA has regular meetings with the Vice Provost for Graduate Education and Dean of the Graduate School, the Senior Associate Dean of the Graduate School, and the Assistant Dean for Graduate Student Affairs of the Graduate School, and serves on the University Board of Trustees.  

All of the above assure a representative voice in affairs of the University that directly impact graduate and professional students.  For example, in 2014, the President of the GPSA brought concerns regarding potential increases in the cost of the Student Health Insurance Plan (SHIP) due to implementation of the Affordable Care Act to the attention of University administrators.  As a result, the University worked with its health insurance consultants and SHIP advisory groups that included graduate student representatives, to renegotiate a new contract and “Platinum” SHIP with modest premium increases.  In addition, a Student Health Insurance Task Force was appointed and has issued a comprehensive report with recommendations for mechanisms to help mitigate rising costs for health insurance in the future (see Section III). 

Graduate School Alumni Society

The Graduate School Alumni Society (GSAS) is a constituent society of the Penn State Alumni Association.  The GSAS’ mission is to nurture relationships between Penn State graduate students and alumni, both nationally and internationally; advance graduate education and research; and increase graduate alumni membership in the Penn State Alumni Association.  During each Graduate School Commencement Ceremony, all graduates are given a free one-year membership in the Penn State Alumni Association. 

The GSAS strives to engage graduate students through programs and initiatives that enhance the educational experience, such as career planning and professional development workshops, networking receptions, and mentoring opportunities.  Board members also support the priorities of the Vice Provost for Graduate Education and Dean of the Graduate School, which include raising the visibility of graduate education and support for graduate students, communicating the strengths of Penn State’s graduate programs, faculty and students, and the value of advanced degrees to society.  

Four seats on the GSAS Board of Directors are designated for representatives of the Graduate and Professional Student Association (GPSA), including the President and Past-President.  In addition, each of the Alumni Society’s four committees includes one GPSA representative.  These volunteer leadership roles are vital to the creation of strategic goals that will influence the positioning of graduate students on a career trajectory distinguished by personal fulfillment and professional achievement. 

Professional Development Opportunities and Support Services

Each fall, prior to the start of classes, all new graduate students across the University are invited to a Graduate School-sponsored New Graduate Student Orientation that provides a welcome by the Vice Provost for Graduate Education and Dean of the Graduate School; overviews of important information related to student life, University technology systems, health insurance and services, and other important topics; and includes a reception with relevant University “Exhibitors” attending to provide information resources on a host of student services and support (University Libraries, LGBTQA Student Resource Center, Counseling and Psychological Services/CAPS, etc.).  

The Graduate School also sponsors a variety of professional development opportunities for graduate students each year that are designed to assist students with their academic and career endeavors.  Each fall, a series of Grant Writing workshops is conducted to provide advanced graduate students with an overview of the grant writing process within various broad disciplines.  Additionally, a Career Exploration workshop is conducted, which provides an opportunity for students to network with Graduate School alumni and learn about career pathways outside of the academy.  Every spring, the annual Graduate Exhibition is held, which showcases and celebrates graduate research and creative accomplishments across all disciplines.  The Exhibition places special emphasis on communicating research and creative scholarship to a general audience, which presents an important professional development opportunity by challenging graduate students to present their work in clear, comprehensible terms to individuals outside of their fields.  There are several workshops that take place prior to this event to assist students with developing their posters and their presentation skills.  

In addition to the above, the Graduate School sponsors several workshops and conferences that are designed to focus on important emerging issues or topics of interest in any given year, including workshops to promote best practices for Graduate Faculty that have a student-centered focus (e.g. mentoring). An annual Town Hall specifically for graduate students is hosted in the fall for the purposes of open dialogue and communication with the Provost, the Vice Provost for Graduate Education, and the Vice President for Research, who all serve as panelists for this open forum, Q&A event. 

The Graduate School supports the Graduate Writing Center (GWC), an important resource to aid in students’ academic and career development by providing free one-to-one peer consultations and interactive workshops for Penn State graduate students across all disciplines and all levels of writing ability, in order to improve their writing skills.

The Graduate School also offers a Graduate School Teaching Certificate to provide graduate students with an avenue to enhance their teaching skills and gain formal recognition of their commitment to college teaching.  

Recognizing Graduate Student Excellence 

The Graduate School seeks to recognize and promote the achievements of our graduate students through a variety of award programs, with funding derived from institutional resources, as well as gifts from donors.  Some awards are selected centrally from nominations and applications that are submitted to the Graduate School and others are offered by way of funding allocations to colleges in order to support recruitment and retention of high-achieving students.  In all cases these seek to recognize and support excellence, and acknowledge the significant contributions that graduate students make to the teaching, research and outreach missions of the University, including their potential for a greater societal impact. A complete listing of graduate student awards and eligibility criteria is available in the Student Recognition Awards information under the Graduate School Office of Graduate Fellowships and Awards Administration. 

Miscellaneous Benefits

All graduate students are eligible for various discounts, including a variety of national brands and businesses, cultural and athletic events, dining, use of recreational facilities and recreational classes, memberships in numerous extramural clubs, and many others.  Further information on these benefits may be obtained from Penn State’s Discounts website.

Grievance Resolution: Pathway, the Role of the Graduate School, and Relevant Policies

Effective policies, a clear pathway, and delegated responsibility for assuring fair, expeditious and effective resolution of problems for graduate students are a priority for the Graduate School.  For example, occasionally, problems arise between a graduate student and his/her adviser or committee member outside of the classroom.  Whenever possible, disagreements between the student and adviser should be addressed within the department or program.  If the problem is not resolved at this level, the student may file a written grievance with the college administrator for graduate education (generally an associate or assistant dean or director for academic affairs) of his/her college.  In response to this grievance, the college administrator (or Assistant Dean for Graduate Student Affairs of the Graduate School, in the case of a student in an intercollege graduate degree program housed in the Graduate School) will meet with the student, as well as with the faculty member(s) involved, in an effort to resolve the situation.  If the problem cannot be resolved at the college level, the student may file a written grievance with the Assistant Dean for Graduate Student Affairs of the Graduate School, who serves as a University–wide ombudsperson for all graduate students at Penn State.  The Assistant Dean will work with all parties involved, or who need to be consulted, in order to resolve the issue.  This process includes consultation with the Vice Provost and Dean of the Graduate School as needed.  Additional details regarding steps in this grievance protocol are in the Graduate Degree Programs Bulletin, Appendix II (Resolution of Problems).

Other relevant policies on the Graduate School web site include Guiding Principles for Good Practice in Graduate Education, and Grade Mediation and Adjudication and those in the University Policy Manual, especially RP02 (Handling Inquiries/Investigations into Questions of Ethics in Research and Other Scholarly Activities) and IP02 (Co-authorship of Scholarly Reports, Papers, and Publications).  

Graduate Student Due Process

Graduate students should also be aware of additional conduct-related policies in the Graduate Degree Programs Bulletin that delineate due process afforded to graduate students/assistants.   These include:  Appendix I (Codes of Conduct), Appendix III (Procedures for Termination of the Degree Program of a Graduate Student for Unsatisfactory Scholarship), and Appendix IV (Termination of Assistantships Due to Inadequate Performance).  

Other Questions, Concerns and Issues That May Relate to Graduate Students

All graduate students, regardless of field of study, degree program, department/college or location, have a home in the Graduate School, which oversees graduate education across the University.  Graduate students are the focal point of the priorities of the Graduate School, which advances opportunities for students’ professional development and intellectual growth, and strives to ensure students derive the maximum benefit from their graduate experience.

For any questions or concerns not addressed in the Fact Sheet above or by your graduate program, contact the Graduate School at: graduatedean@psu.edu

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