Will graduate students on assistantships get the same benefits as employees?

Date: May 2017


Dear Deans,

Good afternoon!

I’m curious about the recent NLRB ruling. As I understand it, Cornell graduate students with assistantships are now considered employees. Does this provide us with the benefits available to faculty and staff at Cornell, including parking permits, free TCAT bus passes, other commuter benefits, Cornell Wellness Program, etc.?

Thank you so much!


Graduate Student


Dear Graduate Student,

Thank you for your question.

Cornell provides services and support to its graduate students as students. There are some limited exceptions in which a particular law may require that Cornell treat a subset of our students as employees for limited purposes. The recent NLRB (National Labor Relations Board) decision provides for such exception.

In the August 2016 Columbia University case the NLRB issued a decision that held graduate assistants at private universities are employees only with respect to rights under the National Labor Relations Act. The reach of the NLRB finding regarding employee status is limited to the rights to form or join a labor union dependent on a majority vote in a union representation election and to collectively bargain with the employer.  

In contrast, most other laws are consistent with Cornell’s approach of treating our students as students. For example, under the Fair Labor Standards Act, most students performing duties on their campus are not considered employees under that law. As another example, federal financial aid laws recognize graduate studies to be education and not employment in that education loan payback deferral is available to students enrolled in graduate programs, but is not available to individuals holding employee status.

Benefits provided to students are different than employee benefits. Graduate students apply to and are admitted to Cornell as students, and are eligible for student-related funding and benefits as they progress toward earning their academic degree. For example, Cornell students on assistantships and fellowships receive fully-paid health insurance through the platinum-level Student Health Plan, which is designed specifically to meet student needs, such as providing a high level of coverage 24 hours a day, anywhere in the world, including world-wide travel assistance and emergency air transportation services. In contrast, employees must work at least 50% time to be eligible for employer-provided health insurance, and they pay a portion of that coverage. The coverage is more expensive and not tailored to students’ needs.

Graduate students on assistantships and fellowships also receive full tuition as part of the assistantship or fellowship, $29,500 in the endowed colleges and $20,800 in the contract colleges annually. In contrast, Cornell employees are eligible for modest tuition benefits. The employee tuition aid program provides partial reimbursement for cost of tuition, covering an approved job-related course for up to four credit hours/semester at a maximum of $550.40/semester, and the Employee Degree Program enables qualified employees to pursue part-time study at Cornell.

Likewise, other benefits tailored to students include various policies and benefits, such as the Student Wellness Initiative, child care grants, conference and research travel grants, parental accommodation including maternity and paternity leave, and writing support programs, and a variety of free and discounted deals that are available for graduate students. 

Professional development programs provided for students through the Graduate School and our campus partners to focus particularly on developing skill sets requested by graduate students include Pathways to Success, the Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching, and Learning, the Center for Teaching Innovation, the Summer Success Symposium, the Colman Leadership Program, the BEST program, the English Language Support Office, and others.

I hope this response is helpful to you.

Warm regards,


Barbara A. Knuth
Senior Vice Provost and Dean, Graduate School