The GOP-led Tax Cuts and Jobs Act currently being debated in the House of Representatives poses a devastating threat to graduate students here at Yale and nationwide. As currently written, the bill would increase the taxes of a typical Yale PhD student by $7,000 per year to over 30 percent of our income.
How exactly is such extortion achieved? Graduate students occupy a unique hybrid role as both students and employees: As we are pursuing our higher degrees, we also work doing research and teaching on campus. In return, we are provided a stipend to cover our costs of living and our tuition fees are waived. Under current law, we only pay taxes on our stipend. After all, we never see a cent of our tuition waiver. However, under the proposed House legislation, this “qualified tuition reduction” would lose its tax-exempt status, and the waiver would be treated like any other income.
To see the magnitude of this effect, let’s walk through an example for a PhD student here at Yale: me. As a graduate student in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, I receive an annual stipend of $34,000 and a health care package valued at $2,300. In addition, Yale waives my tuition of $41,000. Under current law, I owe about $3,400 in taxes annually, which is 10 percent of my income. Under the proposed change, both my stipend and the tuition I’m not paying count as income. Accounting for this and other proposed changes in the bill, I would owe $10,400 in taxes annually, or 31 percent of my income. My taxes will increase over 300 percent.
I am not the only one who will be impacted: Students nationwide will be hit hard. Based on the most recent data available, nearly 150,000 graduate students across the United States currently receive tuition waivers. Depending on individual circumstances, they may see their taxes increase to anywhere between 15 percent and 60 percent of their income. Right now, a majority of 75 percent of students accrue no debts during their PhD. This proposed law is sure to change that. In the face of such a sudden burden, many of us will be forced to take on unanticipated student loans or drop out altogether. Personally, although I deeply enjoy my program and research, I’m not sure I can rationalize continuing with a take-home pay below the cost of living here in New Haven. I would have little choice but to quit the PhD program I love.
Such a widespread flight from graduate school will reshape our higher education system for the worse. By making graduate school financially unattainable for all except the independently wealthy, we will see precipitous declines in the numbers of minority and disadvantaged students. At the same time, we will incentivize the best and brightest students to pursue more lucrative opportunities elsewhere. The House bill will drive away exactly those students we want to attract to our universities.
Having fewer graduate students will also undermine research and undergraduate education. At nearly every university, we act as an essential linchpin: teaching classes, grading exams and answering student questions. Without us, undergraduate education may become more expensive and depersonalized. Additionally, graduate students are the engine of academic research. This is especially true in STEM disciplines, which will bear the brunt of the blow: 60 percent of those who receive tuition waivers are in STEM. Our decimation will permanently weaken this country’s foundations of research and education.
In response to this proposal, graduate students and advocacy organizations have mobilized. Here at Yale, the Graduate and Professional Student Senate and the Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, among others, have released statements. At the same time, the Yale Graduate Student Assembly and the National Association of Graduate and Professional Students led a day of action this past Wednesday, urging students to contact their lawmakers. On Twitter, many also used #reworkthereform to show their opposition.
Inspiring some hope, the Senate version of the bill does not contain these higher-education repeals. However, it is still open to amendment, and the two versions will eventually have to be reconciled. If these provisions make it into the final passage, they will ruin graduate schools nationwide. It will make pursuing a PhD impossible for most, driving disadvantaged and high-achieving students away from research and higher education, where they are desperately needed. It will hamper quality undergraduate education, and lead to the withering of academic research. We need to communicate this urgency to our elected officials. Call them. Email them. Write them. Tell them to oppose section 1204 in the House bill, which repeals qualified tuition reductions. Tell them to oppose the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.
Mike Blazanin is a PhD student in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .