The taxing of tuition waivers for graduate students is a full front assault on education, science and research in America. Make no doubt about it, there is not a single good reason why tuition waivers need to be taxed beyond someone in an office in Congress wanted to find money somewhere to help defray the cost of the big corporate tax cuts.
What is a tuition waiver, anyway? When many students decide to go to graduate school for a Masters or Ph.D., they take jobs as teaching or research assistants. These jobs don’t pay much — these days it might be between $15-$30,000 a year. If you are single (and not all graduate students are, many have families), then you can make due depending on where you live.
However, as part of this, the university will waive the tuition fees that come with being registered as a student in at the university. That could add up to tens of thousands of dollars of tuition you don’t have to pay. Yes, there are still fees that are in the hundreds of dollars and yes, you might have to pay some or all of your health insurance. But with that tuition waiver, most graduate students who can land an RA or TA position don’t need to take out loans to pursue their graduate education.
The tax reform bill that passed the U.S. House removes tax code that prevents tuition waivers from being seen as income. Remember, students never see that money, they just don’t have to pay it. The current tax bill makes that taxable income. Let that sink in. Suddenly, on paper, you might be “making” $80,000 a year when you really only get paid $25,000. Sure, you can deduct the cost of the maintenance of your private jet, but now you’ll be paying taxes on money you never, ever had.
Who does this hurt? Everyone. This is a tax plan that penalizes everyone who wants to get advanced degrees to become a doctor or a cancer researcher or a geologist or an botanist who studies food crops or a ecologist who studies cattle ranching practices or your child’s next history teacher or your pastor who goes to divinity school. Advanced degrees are not the realm for the rich, privloiedged few but are a training ground for so many vital pieces of our economy and research.
I would not have been able to go to graduate school for my Ph.D. in geology if this existed in the early 2000s. It would have been impossible. Today, I teach students at a liberal arts college and try to instill a sense of lifelong learning and curiosity, but the reality of this tax bill is that it eviscerates the ability for many, heck most, people from pursuing such endeavors. It will overwhelming impact lower and middle class students, many of which are students of color. It is the opposite of how America can become great.
If this passes the Senate and is signed into law by the president, it would devastate research across America. The number of students going to graduate school would plummet and the amount of talent that we have that could make the next breakthrough or found the next big company or find our next en energy resource would vanish. It is as simple as that.
At best, this is an oversight that needs to be corrected in whatever final version of this bill might exist. At worst, it is a full frontal attack on education and research in this country. For the sake of our country, I hope that Congress can realize how bad this would be and how little they gain from making this change.
Call or email your congressman or Senator today to make it clear that we cannot destroy American education for the sake of tax breaks for the few.