The grad student tax is an attack on higher education. Let’s try to stop it.

Grad student tax burdens could quadruple. What that means, why it’s happening, and what we can do about it.

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The tax plan being debated in the halls of Congress is going to greatly limit access to graduate education. The version passed by the House counts as income the tuition waivers received by grad students on fellowships or assistantships (that’s just about everyone not in law or med school). The result is a huge tax increase for students making next-to-nothing.

Here’s how it works: most graduate students teach and/or do research for the university in exchange for a small living stipend and not having to pay tuition. While some in the hard sciences get more, those stipends typically hover just above the poverty line for a full-time workload (ask anyone who works in these alleged “20-hour a week” positions that are exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act). Tuition waivers are far more valuable, wiping away an expense that would be double to triple the income earned from the stipend. That’s not income grad students ever see, nor is it a tax deduction they have to claim; it’s just an expense they don’t have to pay. But taxing that as income can take a potentially catastrophic chunk out of the actual stipend money a student has to live on.

I ran the numbers on my graduate education. Here’s how the changes in the House tax bill would’ve increased my tax burden by counting my tuition waiver as income (pre-deductions for simplicity):

Master’s: Tax rate increases from 10% to 32% of actual income
Doctorate: Tax rate increases from 12% to 50% (!) of actual income

I was fortunate. I got a Master’s degree in-state and lived rent-free with family. With those discounts and a few part-time jobs, I made it work. And maybe, under the new plan, I could still float that.

But a Ph.D. with 50% of my actual income going to taxes? I literally couldn’t have afforded rent in a dirt cheap college town.

I could not have become an educator.

And lots of other would-be graduate students in lots of other fields would not be able to reach their aspirations because Uncle Sam priced them out of it.

Many graduate programs are the purest remaining pursuits of knowledge & creativity. They don’t end in high-paying jobs that make shouldering years of debt feasible.

Arts, humanities & social sciences, particularly, are going to get crushed by this.

Of course, STEM folks are saying it’s going to kill STEM too. And, honestly, that’s a more compelling argument to Washington, because it more directly threatens economic growth.

I think these programmatic statements have a lot to do with the silos we live in as graduate students and the precision with which we learn to make claims. We talk about our disciplines because they are the ones we know and have experienced.

Let’s be clear: This threatens all of us.

Let’s be clear again: Our fate rests in the hands of Senate Republicans.

The Senate bill currently does not include the House language about taxing tuition waivers. The Republican majority in the Senate is slimmer than the House and, as we’ve seen with attempts to reform healthcare, a few moderate, establishment Republicans can decide a bill’s fate. Those moderates are important, because this smells more like an agenda than a budget balancer.

Look, I am a hard-wired cheapskate. Famous for frugality. And it makes me something of a fiscal conservative on the macro stage, too. But here’s the deal–

Taxing graduate tuition affects such a small portion of extremely low-income people that it does nothing to increase revenue. It’s hard to see how it’s not an attack on higher education from a party that has become disturbingly anti-intellectual.

Since 2015, sharp rise in share of Republicans saying colleges have a negative effect on the countryHere’s the kicker: The ivory tower liberal elite the GOP imagines represents all of higher ed can afford this tax penalty. Or the person so progressive they now exist on a higher metaphysical plane than “money” — they’re not going away.

This Bible-belt, red-state guy pinching pennies to make ends meet? He’s gone. So are all the other blue-collar would-be students who can add diversity of thought to a place that definitely needs it.

What good does that do?

But our representatives’ goal here isn’t improving access or funding of graduate education to entice a student body – and a future faculty – that looks more like America. So we need a strategy to stay alive. Here’s a really good starting point from Chris Marsicano, a Ph.D. candidate at Vanderbilt (click the tweet to read the whole thread):

To summarize: Make the key message simple – this is a grad student tax. Contact senators. Spread the message the old-fashioned way – through op-eds in newspapers that lawmakers still read. And do it with tact. You cannot embody the entitled liberal snowflake you are believed to be.

Let’s give this the old college try (hey, that should mean more to us than just about anyone!). Be outspoken on social media. Publish something. Encourage your university and academic associations to take a stand. Call your senators* and make sure they know you don’t support taxing tuition waivers as income. If lowering the debt is their concern, it doesn’t. If simplifying the tax code is their concern, it doesn’t (this was never a deduction; it’s just not reported as income in the first place). Institutions of higher learning are among the largest employers in most states and, as mentioned earlier, those STEM grad programs drive serious economic growth.

This is such a small issue in a larger reform that Republicans desperately need to pass to prove they can do something for the folks who voted them into the majority. Any level of public pressure should make it an easy concession.

Let’s stand up for the next generation of theorists, innovators and experts. Let’s do this.

*The Capitol switchboard number is (202) 224-3121. Just tell the operator whose office you wish to speak with. When you get on the phone with a staff member, politely explain where you are from (they only care if you’re their constituent) and why you are calling. They’ll make a note of your position on the issue (you don’t have to go into a whole dissertation defense… that’s never going to reach your representative anyway). Five minutes. Done.

Photo: The stack of tax code documents grad students are about to have to add to their weekly readings. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

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