Last month, the House of Representatives passed a bill that could potentially quadruple the tax burden on graduate students. The response from students has been decisive and politically charged. A national outbreak of walkouts, marches and demonstrations culminated in eight graduate students being arrested outside the office of Speaker of the House Paul Ryan on Tuesday. “If you have not yet contacted your legislators, please make your voice heard,” wrote Dean of the Yale University Graduate School of Arts and Sciencews Lynn Cooley, in an email to all graduate school students and faculty. “The time to act is now!”
The politics of the situation are alarming, and Republicans in Congress must be held accountable for a proposal that could greatly stymie the country’s higher-level education. But in an era where all wrongs lead to Trump, students and faculty have lost sight of who shares responsibility for their inflated bills: their own universities.
The House plan, H.R.1, introduced by the 115th Congress, proposes to treat tuition waivers as taxable income. This will affect, according to the Department of Education, about 145,000 graduate students nationwide, but let’s use Yale as an example of what’s going on. According to GSAS, all doctoral students receive a “minimum level of stipend support of $30,250 for five years upon matriculation.” Each student is responsible for a “tuition fee” that, for most full-time study programs, is $41,000. GSAS, however, “provides all doctoral students with a full tuition fellowship” — in other words, each graduate student is responsible for a payment that the University then waives. The House bill proposes to include this waived payment in the student’s taxable income, so they would be taxed as if they were making $71,250, while still only receiving $30,250 in stipend. If the bill is passed, Yale students could end up paying more than $10,000 annually in taxes — a third of their already meager allowances.
It’s a tremendous blow to a student population that, as evidenced by last semester’s protests, already feels overworked and underpaid. As Steven Bloom of the American Council on Education noted in an interview with Vox, the bill “is likely to lead to fewer people pursuing graduate education and a PhD because they can’t afford it, or they’re going to take more loans — and at a time when everyone is rightly worried about student debt.” The outrage is justified, and politicians must be held accountable. But why does Yale need to charge a tuition fee at all?
At first, it seems like the tuition fee is an arbitrary way to move money between different parts of the University, since students don’t actually pay. But as Sarah Arveson GRD ’21 — a graduate student in geology and geophysics at Yale — outlines in an article published in the Washington Post, universities can employ the tuition fee strategically. A close look at the GSAS programs and policies (a rough analog to the Blue Book for undergraduates) reveals that when students appointed as research assistants receive external grants for their work, the grants pay for half of their tuition. This, then, is essentially free income for Yale: an external institution funds a student, and through providing funding, pays the University $20,500 per year. Add up the number of research assistants at Yale, and you find a loophole that’s generating the University millions — millions that are sliced off the budgets of taxpayer-funded institutions like the NIH.
The other, more cynical, explanation, is that Yale charges a tuition fee expressly so that it can be waived, and then used to guilt graduate students. When responding to graduate student protests last semester, Cooley wrote in the New Haven Register — “As a scientist, and I know that facts matter, here is a fact that readers should know — graduate students in doctoral programs at Yale receive full tuition support … doctoral students at Yale do not pay any tuition.”
To the uninformed reader, this casts graduate students in the light of spoiled, demanding, privileged brats: attending Yale for free and whining about being underpaid. But in reality, Cooley’s statement reveals just how disingenuous administrators can be — tens of thousands of graduate students around the country pay no tuition, because universities are as dependent on the students to produce quality research as students are on the ultimate degree.
There’s a rich irony in Cooley encouraging students to lobby against a proposal that exposes the self-serving nature of the University. If she was desperate to take care of the graduate students, she wouldn’t just instruct them to phone bank — she would take steps to alleviate the financial burden of the tuition fee. Applaud the University for taking a hard political stance on the issue. But question why it hasn’t taken the steps necessary to solve the issue itself.
Mrinal Kumar is a senior in Berkeley College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .