Can Graduate Students With An Assistantship Participate in the University 401K Plan?

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As most of you know, I am planning to return to graduate school this fall to get my PhD in Engineering.
I am very lucky because in the field I have chosen to study, it is fairly standard for all full-time graduate students to… 
  • Have their tuition fully paid for 
  • Receive a small salary through what’s called an “assistantship” 
  • And also have health insurance paid for.
Recently, I began to ponder something – if we are receiving some employee benefits from the university, would it be possible for me to participate in the university’s 401k and pension benefits?
Now, let’s get real. Since my income is going to be 67% lower than what it was in my previous job, I will not be able to contribute much money in to a 401k account. This is especially true since it is more efficient to first contribute to an IRA up to the maximum limit, according to the account hierarchy as discussed previously.
After searching around online briefly, I could not really find any cases of people having found out that they could or could not participate in the university’s 401k program as a graduate assistant. 
I suppose I am probably the only one nerdy enough to think this far in to financial things. The main thing I found were people wondering whether or not they should tap in to the old employer’s 401k account to pay for the tuition of higher education. Fortunately, I do not have to worry about this dilemma.
After being turned down by my Google search, I sent an email to the person in charge of wages for engineering graduate students at my university, and her response was as shown below: 
“Not as a student wage employee. Pension benefits are extended to the University Classified Staff, Faculty, House-staff, Medical Center, Professional Research Staff, And University Staff.” 

So, the answer was a resounding “no.” But hey, it can never hurt to ask!

How about you all? Do you know if the rule for graduate students participating in 401k and pension programs is different at other schools?

Share your experiences by commenting below!

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Related articles about graduate students’ 401k contributions at several of my favorite personal finance blogs:
CashMoneyLife – Considerations for When It May Not Be Appropriate to Contribute to a 401K

About the Author Jacob A Irwin

Hi folks! My name is Jacob. I am the owner and operator of My Personal Finance Journey. I started this blog in January of 2010 and have enjoyed the journey ever since. Since finishing up graduate school in Virginia in 2014, I have been working in biopharmaceutical development in Colorado. You can read more about me and this site here​. Please contact me if you have any questions!

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Leave a Comment:

grad money matters says July 6, 2011

I am not surprised that you did not find anything through Google search. When I was in grad school I didn't even know what a 401K was!

I am impressed that you went beyond a simple search and contacted the university authorities, even though the outcome was not very favorable. How about an IRA instead?
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MyPerFinJourney says July 7, 2011

Thanks for reading grad money matters! I just subscribed to your site via email and twitter! Nice.

I was slightly bummed that the University doesn't offer the 401k option to grad students. However, it probably was for the better. Now that I've maxed out my Roth IRA for the year, I'm using extra money that I have to pay off the mortgage on my condo loan!
My recent post Tour de Personal Finance, Stage 5, Posts 7-10

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