My mother came to America in the ’90s with dreams of earning a doctorate and sending her kids to college. Twenty-five years later, she’s a professor at one of the nation’s top medical schools, and both of her children are students at prestigious institutions. But the educational system that enabled us to join the American middle class has now come under attack by a tax bill that falsely purports to help middle class families like ours.
As a latchkey kid, I grew up with a single mother who spent most of her time in the lab, working overtime to cure skin cancer and pay for my sister’s pricey Massachusetts Institute of Technology education. I studied hard to get into a free residential high school in order to lessen the burden of my expenses. Our money problems were tough but not insurmountable, because we lived frugally and because my mom’s employer, Duke University, provided a tuition grant that paid 75 percent of my sister’s tuition. This incredible tuition benefit program, open to the children of all full-time employees, is an attractive reason to work at universities such as Duke and Yale; it allows workers of all backgrounds — from custodians and security guards to tenured professors and administrators — to send their children to college.
It won’t stay that way if the GOP tax bill currently in the House of Representatives passes as is.
The House’s tax plan includes the value of tuition benefits in the taxpayer’s tax bracket, thereby inflating employee income and taxing families at significantly higher rates. It would force university employees to forgo educational opportunities for their children, and many students like me would no longer be able to afford the education that our older siblings received.
This was painful to find out, since I chose Yale precisely because Duke’s tuition grant eased my guilt for turning down cheaper colleges back home in North Carolina. After my first semester of college, I’ve already fallen in love with Yale far too much to leave for a less expensive university, so I’ll have to take on a third on-campus job and reconsider my graduate school plans. And in a few weeks, my family will do something that we aren’t so proud of — we’ll register my grandma for food stamps again.
The federal government’s punishment of my family is unwarranted: We played by the rules to get to where we are now. My hours of polishing scholarship essays, the all-nighters I pulled to study for chemistry exams, and my days of working in the school cafeteria, the mail room, the concession stand and the biology department are what got me into Yale, not shortcuts such as legacy preferences or Jared Kushner-esque donations. America’s higher education system, though obviously flawed, remains an essential tool for leveling the playing field. My mom’s old acquaintances are always impressed to find out that a quiet little girl from a family of eight in Dongyang, a Chinese village most known for its incomprehensible dialect and delicacy of urine-soaked eggs, has grown up to become a leading scholar with successful children on the other side of the world.
Furthermore, the House’s proposed inclusion of tuition remission in gross income could make talented faculty members leave academia and cause graduate students to discontinue their educational plans. Their plan doesn’t let institutions waive or reduce tuition costs for graduate students without tax implications. Fortunately the Senate version of the tax bill doesn’t contain these provisions. The final, reconciled version of the bill that President Trump will soon sign is still up in the air, however, and it remains to be seen whether tax reform will put America’s university system under siege. Colleges like Duke and Yale must find a way around this: Universities should publicly pledge to protect the thousands of students and families hurt by the very legislation meant to help us. The GOP tax plan represents the federal government’s view of universities as elite, but those “elitists” enabled my family to achieve the American Dream. Ironically, decreasing accessibility to higher education would make it truly elite.
Well, at least wealthy corporations are having a better day than students and academics like my mom and I.
Kenneth Xu is a first year in Timothy Dwight College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .