In a recent Washington Post op-ed, Sarah Arveson GRD ’21, a member of the graduate student union Local 33, argued that the University — not just lawmakers — will be to blame if graduate students find themselves forced to pay a three-fold increase in taxes as a result of a bill that passed last Thursday in the U.S. House of Representatives. The Senate is expected to vote on its own version of the tax bill Friday.
Arveson’s claim that the University could negate the bill’s effect by eliminating tuition for graduate students altogether received mixed reviews from students, faculty and experts.
Under the current system, tuition is fully waived for all doctoral candidates at Yale. Yet the money still appears in financial statements, as it is transferred automatically between University accounts. The tuition never passes through the hands of graduate students themselves.
But Arveson took issue with this “pretense of tuition,” claiming that the University uses the fact that they waive payment as “propaganda” intended to lend support to arguments against graduate student unionization. Additionally, Arveson writes, keeping the tuition in place allows Yale to “get more money out of the public” through federal grants which, in addition to funding the salaries of research assistants, pay for half of their tuition. In Arveson’s view, it is the University’s self-serving motives that make graduate students vulnerable under the bill, which treats the tuition waivers as taxable benefits.
“If this tax measure passes, and Yale does not take action, many of us will be unable to stay here,” Arveson told the News. “Does Yale value graduate employees and what we do? That’s what’s at stake in the question of tuition.”
Arveson’s op-ed drew on a long-standing debate about whether graduate students should be treated primarily as students or employees. For her part, Arveson argued that billing students for their research and teaching labor is akin to making medical residents pay the hospitals where they work.
Yale’s decision to waive graduate students’ tuition in full is an implicit admission that graduate students are employees central to the University’s operations, she said.
But Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Lynn Cooley disputed Arveson’s characterization of graduate students. Although Cooley stressed that the University is “actively engaged” in challenging the House bill in concert with peer institutions, she suggested that graduate students are primarily students, not employees.
“The education of [doctoral] students is expensive, and it occurs in the classroom, as well as through hands-on research, scholarship and training, including learning to teach alongside faculty mentors,” Cooley told the News. “Learning to teach and conduct research is a core element of graduate student education.”
In an email to the News, Wendy Xiao GRD ’18, chair of the Graduate Student Assembly, defended the origins of graduate student tuition, arguing that it is no different from undergraduate fees, despite differences in funding. Tuition benefits and stipends graduate students receive in the first four years of their doctoral programs are not contingent upon the number of hours they teach or do research, Xiao said. She added that graduate students can lose the tuition benefits at Yale for academic misconduct or failure to fulfill academic requirements, conditions that go beyond teaching and research.
Sarah Smaga GRD ’19, who sits on the Graduate Student Assembly’s steering committee, said graduate students’ current priority should not be tuition.
“Though the op-ed raises a lot of important issues, I think right now our focus should be on fighting the tuition tax in Congress, not fighting within our institutions,” Smage said.
D. Bruce Johnstone, former chancellor of the State University of New York, told the News that, although it is often supported by government grants, tuition for graduate students helps uphold the prestige of institutions like Yale.
“It’s both appropriate to retain that notion that higher education is quite expensive and appropriate for a portion of that cost to be reflected in tuition or in the matter [of] who pays it,” Johnstone said. “Hopefully students don’t have to bear it all and luckily graduate students generally don’t bear [the costs].”
But not all students and faculty interviewed were ready to dismiss Arveson’s proposal.
Michael Denning GRD ’84, an American Studies professor and vocal Local 33 supporter, praised the op-ed as powerful and reflective of the realities at Yale, where graduate students shoulder significant responsibilities in teaching and research.
“The argument that Yale’s support for its graduate teachers and researchers includes the ‘tuition’ it waives has been a standard part of the Yale administration line for more than 20 years,” Denning said. “But it has not been an accurate representation of work in the research university since at least the Bayh-Dole Act of the early 1980s that transformed funding in research institutions.”
The Bayh-Dole Act gives universities the right to license patents developed in their laboratories, including those funded by the government, effectively making graduate students part of the workforce, Denning argued.
Local 33 Chair Aaron Greenberg GRD ’18 echoed Arveson’s belief that the University tacitly concedes that graduate students are employees by waiving their tuition in full.
“Yale has repeatedly pointed to our tuition waivers as evidence of our privileged status — the same thing the Republicans are doing now. We’d like to see a stop to that,” Greenberg said.
According to Michael Parker GRD ’18 — who co-wrote a piece on the House bill that was published on Thursday in The Scientist, a magazine for life science professionals — altering graduate student tuition is a feasible option for Yale because the University is a private institution.
“Private universities could just change what the tuition is or what they call it,” Parker told the News. “But public universities would not be able to do it. Their decisions on tuition do not come from universities but from states.”
For the 2017–18 academic year, the tuition for most full-time study programs at the graduate school is $41,000.
Jingyi Cui | email@example.com