If we vote to form a union, where will the money come from to pay for the added benefits?

Date: March 2017


Dear Deans,

If we vote to form a union, where will the money come from to pay for the added benefits? I assume that the university has a balanced budget right now. Would fewer students be admitted?


Cost-conscious Graduate Student


Note: This response was edited to remove one sentence to address a concern expressed by CGSU/AFT/NYSUT.

Dear Cost-conscious Graduate Student,

Thank you for your Ask a Dean question. 

I agree with your concern that it is important to consider in advance the possible sources of funds that could be used to cover costs of additional benefits that CGSU/AFT/NYSUT would seek to negotiate in the collective bargaining process. Different costs are typically linked to different sources of funds, so making predictions is challenging.

For example, the combined cost of a student’s research assistantship stipend, tuition, and health insurance is, in most cases at Cornell, paid for by a faculty member’s externally-funded grant (e.g., from NSF, NIH, DOE, USDA, USEPA, etc.). The combined cost of a student’s teaching assistantship (stipend, insurance, tuition) is, in most cases at Cornell, paid for through academic department or college funds. 

All of these funds (external grants, and department and college budgets) are limited. Those overseeing grant and academic budgets would need to decide what tradeoffs would be made to cover increased costs for stipend and health insurance. Cornell has held research degree tuition constant (no increases) for about a decade, in part to moderate increased budget demands on faculty grants (and only ½ of research degree tuition is included in the grant budget; Cornell covers the other half).

What might this look like in dollars, for stipends? The base stipend rate for an academic-year assistantship at Cornell is $25,780/year (not including increases provided routinely in some disciplines, and not including summer stipend which is also provided routinely across the university). CGSU/AFT/NYSUT have advertised their dues for the AFT/NYSUT component (not including CGSU dues) for that annual stipend amount as $397.68/year. There are about 2,230 eligible voters in the bargaining unit. Just to cover dues, this minimum converts into $887K, just to stay even, based on the current dues rate; a real stipend increase would of course have higher costs.

What might it look like for health insurance? That’s a complicated question. Health insurance costs are based on a combination of factors, including the costs of care, level of coverage, and the number and composition of people that makes up the pool to be insured. Typically, the larger the pool of participants, the lower the costs (and the younger and healthier the pool, the lower the costs). Currently, Cornell pays for and provides the Student Health Plan, a platinum-level health plan, for all graduate students on assistantships. The participant pool for the Student Health Plan includes all Ithaca and Geneva students – undergraduates, graduate, and professional. 

What might happen to costs if graduate students on assistantships were pulled out of this pool to be part of a stand-alone health insurance pool? The graduate assistant participant pool would be much smaller – roughly one-tenth the size of the existing pool. Might that cause health insurance costs to rise, even without additional enhancements to insurance coverage? It’s not possible to predict in advance what these costs might be, without more details about who would be included in the participant pool and for what types of insurance coverage. But, again, the fund sources would be faculty grants (for research assistantships) and department/college budgets (for teaching assistantships).

What about funds to support special populations? Currently, Cornell allocates $250,000/year to provide childcare grants to students with children. That’s an annual allocation that comes directly from the central university budget, which in turn receives its funds largely from an allocated cost charge to each of the colleges (colleges at Cornell are the primary revenue generators of tuition, grants, gifts, etc., and central university functions are funded through an annual cost charge to each of the colleges based on various metrics like the number of students, faculty, and staff). 

Increases for special population funds would need to be covered by the central budget, which ultimately means increased cost for colleges, so, again, colleges would need to carefully consider the tradeoffs and determine what to fund less to be able to fund these initiatives more, or the central budget would need to reduce spending in other areas to provide increases of this type.

This is a high-level window into some of the very detailed issues we consider every time we discuss, analyze, and implement additional benefits for graduate students and graduate education at Cornell.

Warm regards,


Barbara A. Knuth
Senior Vice Provost and Dean of the Graduate School