"I Would Have To Drop Out": Students' Thoughts On The GOP Tax Bill

Listening to House Speaker Paul Ryan discuss the Republicans' fast-moving tax proposal would give the impression that Americans are in for a golden age of prosperity. "Passing this bill is the single biggest thing we can do to grow the economy, to restore opportunity and help those middle income families who are struggling," he said, after the bill was passed by the House earlier this month.

But as the bill, which is expected to be voted on this week in the Senate, is further dissected, the deep impact on middle-class and low-income families and individuals becomes clearer.

Another group that would take a major hit? Graduate students. Doctoral students across the country have staged walk-outs and protests in light of the House provision that would tax their graduate tuition.

Vetri Velan, a Ph.D. student in physics at UC Berkeley, and student-colleague Kathy Shield created a calculator to determine how much their and other grad students' tax bills might increase. Using the calculator, the LA Times found that "if Berkeley’s $13,793 annual tuition benefit became taxable, the university’s graduate students’ taxes would rise by 61%, or about $1,400, for a campus teaching assistant, and 31%, or about $1,100, for a research assistant. At MIT, a private institution that charges about $49,600 in annual tuition, taxes would more than triple to $13,577."

That's an impossible amount for most grad students, many of whom are already trapped in a limbo of not-quite-employees, but not-quite-students, and are pursuing efforts to unionize and increase their compensation.

Here is what current, former, and prospective graduate students told Refinery29 about the proposed tax bill and what that tax would look like for their financial situations.

These interviews have been edited and condensed for concision and clarity.

"The first thing that I thought of was healthcare."

Abby Hellauer, Master of Education (Ed.M.) candidate at Rutgers University:

"My program, like many others, matches students with assistantships on campus. We receive a (meager) salary of $7,000/year and the departments we work [in] for 20-25 hours/week pay our tuition, which totals to about $16,000/year. Compared to the Ivies and the cost of many doctoral programs, our tuition is shockingly low; I recognize that. Even still, without my tuition remission, I would not have been able to survive without taking on thousands of dollars' worth of student loans.

"A more educated workforce is the key to economic prosperity. We know this. Graduate students are the folks who are keeping the giant system that is American higher education moving forward. We teach classes, grade papers, control labs, run research projects. We publish. We innovate. We invent. If you take away our ability to afford higher levels of learning, you take away our ability to produce.

"Unless you are independently wealthy — which is almost synonymous with white and male — then this bill essentially destroys every opportunity you might have had to pursue a master's or doctorate. If this bill passes, I have very little faith that programs like mine at state institutions will be able to survive, let alone thrive. It will be catastrophic.

"A side note: While I haven't crunched the numbers on my taxes, I will say that the first thing that I thought of was healthcare. All the folks I know in a grad program over the age of 26 use health insurance through the Affordable Care Act. If my tuition bill was factored into my annual salary, I would have been well above the bracket to qualify for free health insurance last year."

"Eighty-six percent of my stipend goes towards bills. I subsist on less than $20,000 a year."

Tamanisha J. John, a Ph.D. student at Florida International University studying politics and international relations:

"As an FIU graduate student, I am not allowed to work outside of the University, otherwise, I could lose my graduate funding. By this, my university contract stipulates that as a graduate student, I do not have to pay tuition and I receive a small stipend — that is currently taxed — for the work that I do at the university.

"Personally, 86% of my stipend goes towards bills, not including things like gas or groceries. I live in the 25th district of Florida. Our district has a per capita income of a little less than $23,000 and a median household income of less than $44,000. As a graduate student at FIU, I subsist on less than $20,000 a year, which is below the per capita income of our district. To make matters worse, the recent bipartisan report by the CBO revealed that those earning less than $40,000 a year will see an increase in taxes. So, as a graduate student and member of Florida’s 25th district, this bill is just a disaster.

"This tax plan would tax fictitious income that graduate students simply do not receive. Imagine being paid $20,000 a year in the form of a stipend due to TAing and GAing [graduate assistantship] at your university. Your university costs $20,000 - $60,000 to attend, but your tuition waivers cover those costs due to your low stipend costs. With this GOP tax bill, you’ll be taxed as if you receive $40,000 - $80,000 when you only see $20,000. That is unfair, unjust, and an obvious attack on higher education.

"I’ve already outreached to my Representative, Mario Diaz-Balart, via email, phone call, and twitter. And all those times, his responses have been disheartening. It is really as if he’s not paying attention to his constituents. Yesterday I partook in the #GradTaxxWalkout for good reason."

Rachel Hackett, an undergraduate student graduating early:

"I'm currently in college, majoring in English and French, and I'm going to graduate in about a year — December 2018. Since I am graduating a semester early, my plan was to work for one semester until I can start grad school in the fall. But if the proposed tax plan passes, it will make it impossible for me to go to grad school because it will include any tuition waivers I get as taxable income. So, to go to grad school I would either need to have enough money to pay for my tuition and living expenses, or take out loans. It doesn't make sense for me to take out loans for grad school, especially for English grad school; even if I get my ideal job straight after graduation, I will never make enough money to justify the loans.

"I especially feel bad for some friends of mine who just started grad school. If it passes, they won't be able to continue going to school and will have to drop out. Because of this proposed tax plan, I am seriously considering my other options for careers after I graduate with my undergrad degree. I had hoped to become an English professor, but this does not seem like a viable option without grad school.

"I tweeted to Senator Peters and Stabenow because they are my senators from my state, but they are Democrats and I know they oppose the tax plan. I still felt it was important to let them know my opinion on the issue because this is an area that will directly affect me and will have huge impact on my future career."
Writer Magdalena Waz:

"[A post] I was reading that got me tweeting was actually a table [demonstrating] how even tiny incomes would see an increase in taxes. I received a stipend and tuition remission during my two years of grad school, and the stipend of $15,000 was enough to live on in Oxford, Ohio (as long as you didn't have too much non-student loan debt). Being taxed for $45,000 worth of income would have meant that everything I was able to save by living frugally would have gone to paying off an inflated tax bill every year, in addition to making it impossible for me to take time to look for a job after my program was over. As you can imagine, I needed every penny I could scrape together for a move and job hunt.

"[After reading about the proposed bill], I started wondering about the additional deductions and general tax benefits I received the year before graduate school, and it became clear that most of the money I used to apply to grad school would have been unavailable to me had this tax plan passed in 2011. On top of that, I was still trying to pay down some of my student loan debt in the months leading up to grad school (I took a year off), and I was trying to keep up with payments for a bit while receiving my stipend. The current plan would eliminate the student loan interest deduction, meaning those extra savings would not make it back into my pocket either.

"No matter how I turn the problem over in my head, portions of this tax plan would have made it difficult for me to afford the process of applying to schools in the first place, and I likely would have had to take out additional loans to pay off astronomical tax bills, which I would not have been able to afford on a TA's wages alone."
"It will be impossible to get my Ph.D."

Rachel Calderone, an undergraduate student at Indiana University:

"As an undergraduate student studying education, English, and Spanish, I hope to further my education to become an English professor. The effect this bill will have on me is that it will be impossible to get my Ph.D. I do not have the means to earn a small stipend, yet pay taxes on the value of tuition waivers.

"Rather than pursue higher education and accomplish my goals, I will have to make do with my undergraduate degree. This isn’t only a disservice to me, but will negatively affect all those wanting to receive greater education and positively impact the world through research, teaching, and service. This bill must die."

"It seems they don't understand the integral importance of education for economic growth."

Jewel Lipps, a first-year biology Ph.D. student at Georgetown University:

"For me, becoming a Biology Ph.D. student was taking a new job. It's the norm for STEM graduate programs to only accept grad students if the department/professor in the department has funds/grants to cover the costs for a new grad student, these are tuition and stipend for living expenses. Prospective STEM Ph.D. students are always told, don't go for a Ph.D. unless you'll be paid to do it. The biology department guarantees me five years of full funding — the full cost of enrollment for 10 semesters at Georgetown University, and $32,000 each year living allowance stipend. This is a really good deal in the whole scheme of grad school [and] is reflective of costs and stipends at private universities; many departments offer much less.

"When the reports about how the House tax bill would classify tuition as grad student income, the Biology Department chair emailed all the current grad students about it, urging us to call our representatives. In general, we are in shock and disbelief. Counting tuition as our 'income' more than doubles our taxable income. We do pay taxes on our $32,000 income; right now, about $500 per month is withheld from my paycheck. I haven't done taxes yet on my stipend since I'm in my first semester, so I can't do better than estimate what my actual yearly tax will be. However, I don't have to do much math to recognize that being taxed as if I make around $70,000 will dramatically increase my tax obligation. I also have state and local taxes to pay. (Don't say anything silly like, why can't you work from home? STEM Ph.D. students really need to live near campus to work in labs with specialized equipment and materials.

"I think the most important point is that I would pay about 35% of my real income in taxes. Does anybody, especially a Republican, think one individual's tax obligation should be 35% of their total income? How am I supposed to spend more money, or consider entrepreneurship, or do any of those things to grow the economy if I barely have enough to eat and pay rent? In the worst-case scenario, I would have to drop out of this program. Certainly, this part of the tax bill makes getting higher education totally out of reach for the average young adult, and especially for young adults from low-income families. The other first years in my program think they'd have to drop out, and many across the nation have voiced that concern. I think current undergrads will be reluctant to plan to go to grad school in the U.S. and will look for options abroad if they can.

"The Georgetown Alliance for Graduate Employees has truly stepped up in opposition to this. They've been really proactive and I'm glad to be part of the group. We collected letters/petitions from people all over the country and hand-delivered them to offices in Capitol Hill. We are quite upset that the creators of the GOP Tax Bill seem blind to the very real, unfair impact on individuals, and it seems they don't understand the integral importance of education for economic growth.

"I wish they'd think very carefully about what education means for our economy and our society. Higher-education institutions are educators of people who become teachers for K-12 students; higher-education institutions train hundreds of thousands of young adults for jobs in all sectors; higher-education institutions are home to discovery, innovation, and invention. Don't we as a society want to invest in that, not tax it unfairly?"

"As a woman and minority, it is disheartening to see an attempt to make education less accessible."

Kathryn Sánchez, a doctoral candidate at Georgetown University:

"I am currently on a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship (NSF GRF), which provides three years of funding; that includes my tuition and stipend, and is granted to me personally, not my adviser. If I wasn't on this fellowship, I would have to get paid with whatever grant my adviser receives from the National Institutes of Health or teach in the biology department in exchange for my stipend. In my program, students teach various courses. Since courses vary so much, the teaching obligation ranges from very demanding to not demanding at all. At any given point in time, a graduate student in my program could be taking courses, teaching, and be expected to conduct full-time research.

"At this point, I should be fine since I have a fellowship. However, I will need one or two years of funding after this funding ends. In the broader context of things, as a woman and minority from a low-income area, it is disheartening to see an attempt to make education less accessible to people like me. In particular, STEM fields need the best and brightest; only recruiting from the 1% who are able to afford a graduate education would not be conducive to innovative research and technology. Furthermore, graduate workers are a cornerstone of any university. Without us who would teach and do research?"

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