Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
Undergraduate teaching assistants have the ability to turn around a student’s college experience. When I was a freshman at the University of Maryland, it was hard to not be intimidated by my graduate TAs, many of whom were PhD candidates who devoted their professional lives to exactly what they were teaching me. While many were kind and personable, there was something different about my undergraduate TAs, many of whom had taken the course just the year prior. They had an idea of what would be on exams and how to prepare their students for it; they had recent experience and tips for success fresh in their minds.
Simply put, undergraduate TAs are an invaluable resource at this university. Not only can they relate to the students they teach much better than graduate TAs and professors, but they keep general university operations intact. This job does come with benefits for TAs too, as TAs can gain an in-depth relationship with the material they teach, build connections with their professors, earn course credit and possibly receive a small stipend.
But this stipend isn’t always reflective of the work TAs do — some aren’t even paid at all. But when they are paid, TAs are severely underpaid, at best sometimes getting paid roughly $10 an hour at the end of the semester. It’s time this university accredits the hard work of TAs and pays all TAs at least $15 hourly.
TAs for government and politics who lead discussion sections receive a $400 stipend at the end of the semester. $400 a semester comes out to roughly $27 per week for TAs, despite the fact that they lead discussion sections sometimes for multiple hours a day, grade course assignments, hold office hours and support both students and faculty. If TAs do all of these things but don’t lead discussion sections, they don’t get paid at all.
At the very least, TAs should be paid $15 per hour for the discussion section they lead. But even that wouldn’t cover everything else they spend their time doing outside of the course. At this point, TAs aren’t even being paid the bare minimum.
The disregard for TAs in some departments is only expounded knowing that some STEM teaching assistants, such as those with the computer science department, are already being paid $14 an hour. This creates a plain discrepancy in the way STEM teaching assistants are treated compared to those in other departments, when the job description remains the same.
These students might be awarded credit for the position, but that doesn’t change the fact that if they are going to be offered pay, it should reflect what the university has pledged to do for its student employees. Just a few months ago, university President Darryll Pines announced the minimum wage for student employees would rise to $15 in 2023.
For students who come from low-income backgrounds, becoming a TA almost is entirely infeasible for them. Such a low-paying position that takes up so much of their time may simply be impossible to take on if a student needs to spend that time earning more money. This means students who may want to pursue a career in academia or teaching are entirely barred from the opportunity to gain experience in those fields by becoming a TA.
While this is a barrier to students who want to become TAs, it also acts as a barrier to students in their classes. These students aren’t being presented with TAs from a variety of backgrounds and life experiences, who would add valuable contributions to the learning material and ultimately enhance a university education.
There is no question students have a lot to balance. No matter how much you might love your job, it’s hard to want to give it considerable effort if you feel you’re not being fairly compensated. All students should feel they can become a TA without fearing financial repercussions, and no student should feel like the hard work they do is unacknowledged.
Undergraduate teaching assistants chose to dedicate their free time toward mentoring students, easing professors’ workloads and engaging with the material this university teaches. They shouldn’t be doing that almost entirely at their own expense. As outlined by its own principles, this university must require teaching assistants to be paid at least $15 per hour.
Rebecca Scherr is a junior English and government and politics major. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.