In the early hours of Saturday morning, the Senate passed its version of the tax bill, which would give large tax breaks to corporations and the wealthy, add trillions of dollars to the deficit over the course of the next 10 years, and threaten the economic security of women and families through higher taxes and imminent funding cuts to many important programs.
Now, the House and Senate are in the process of reconciling their separate bills, and must approve the same version before passing it on to President Trump to sign. The conference process allows elements from both the House and Senate plans to be included in the final bill, such as a House-proposed tax on graduate student tuition waivers. While the Senate’s tax plan did not include this particular provision, it is possible that this measure will make it into the conferenced version.
In response to the House proposal, graduate students around the country staged protests, leaving their offices, labs, and classrooms empty in a show of anger. Like those students, I find this House provision to tax graduate student stipends appalling, and I am afraid of the lasting effects this type of tax would not only have on graduate students but on the future of higher education.
This issue is particularly important to me because I earned a Ph.D. in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies from Ohio State University in 2014. Now, as a policy analyst at the National Women’s Law Center, I use my graduate education every day in the work that I do producing cross-cutting research and analysis that informs federal and state policies shaping the lives of women and their families.
The five years I spent as a doctoral student were some of the toughest yet most fulfilling of my life. When deciding which school to attend, I considered many factors: location, the program’s reputation, faculty mentors, and course work. Since the cost of attending university is on the rise, funding was also very high on my list. In other words, would the program be able to provide a tuition waiver and stipend in exchange for my academic labor? One thing I never considered was how this decision would affect my tax liability.
In the end, Ohio State did what most other universities do for its graduate students—they offered to waive my tuition in exchange for my teaching and research during the course of my Ph.D. program. This offer sealed the deal because I could get a Ph.D. without accumulating any more educational debt.
After tuition and the many other fees associated with attendance, I was left with a modest monthly income of $1745. While this was not a lot of money, it was enough to (mostly) get by in Columbus, Ohio, although I had help from my family for things like emergency car repairs, vet bills, and groceries—a privilege not afforded to some of my classmates who had to take out loans just in order to live.
If this provision makes it into the final tax bill, graduate students will have to pay taxes on tuition waivers – even though this is money that graduate students never see. At Ohio State, tuition and fees for in-state residents total more $25,000 per year. After my tuition waiver, I received a modest monthly stipend of $1745 every month, on which I paid taxes every year. If the House provision had been in effect when I was in graduate school, I would have not only paid taxes on the monthly stipend but also on the more than $25,000 that never made it to my bank account.
Universities across the country offer waivers—like the one I received—in order to attract the best and brightest students who later become educators, scientists, engineers, political scientists, and innovators in other areas of industry. These waivers make pursuing a graduate education affordable for American students from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds. However, if included into the final tax plan, this provision would turn the benefit of graduate education into a stifling tax burden on the diverse and smart students universities work so hard to recruit.
In the long term, this provision would not only hurt graduate enrollments but also our global standing. There have been recent discussions about how the U.S. is falling behind, in part, because other countries have public universities that cost far less to attend. A college education in the U.S. is more expensive than anywhere else in the world, and rising tuition costs place a financial burden on families and students who graduate with a degree along with loads of crippling debt. Why would Republicans want to make that burden even heavier through this tax bill?
I have heard Republican members of both houses of Congress speak at length about how this tax plan will benefit the American people, but we know who really benefits from this particular provision: wealthy families whose children need not worry about skyrocketing tuition costs or student loan debt. We need to fight this disastrous tax bill, and prevent provisions like this one—that will not only economically devastate the next generation of scholars and students but also hurt our global reputation as a country full of innovators, thinkers, and changers—from ever becoming law.