Graduate student leaders are lobbying against a federal tax bill they say would discourage students from pursuing doctoral degrees.
A Republican bill passed by the House of Representatives last week treats graduate students’ waived tuition as taxable income, so graduate students will have to pay taxes on income they do not actually earn. Parshan Khosravi, Graduate Students Association vice president of external affairs, said the association plans to inform congressional officials of the bill’s impact on graduate students as the Senate considers a version of the bill.
GSA President Michael Skiles said the tax plan would affect more than 40 percent of graduate students in the University of California system, most of who are doctoral candidates. Skiles said almost all UC doctoral students are entitled to a tuition waiver, which means they do not need to pay tuition if they conduct research and fulfill teaching assistant duties. Some students pursuing professional degrees may also receive tuition waivers.
Skiles added Ph.D. students also receive a stipend to cover their living expenses. That stipend is between $20,000 and $22,000 for TA positions, or between $18,000 and $30,000 for difficult-to-obtain research fellowships, he said. Graduate students are TAs for a significant part of their six- to 10-year-long graduate careers, Skiles said.
Skiles said that, under the current tax code, an out-of-state graduate student earning $22,000 as a TA would only pay taxes on that amount. The House Republican bill, however, would treat waived tuition as earned income, so the same student would have to pay income tax on $64,000 – the combined cost of their $42,000 tuition and $22,000 earned income.
“In some cases, you’d jump up an entire tax bracket,” Skiles said.
Skiles said he thinks the additional taxes will force some graduate students to go into debt after paying for expenses like food, travel and rent. He added it may be difficult for doctoral graduates to pay off this debt because, unlike law or medical students, they do not enter lucrative careers directly after receiving their degrees.
“The job market for academics is awful,” Skiles said. “There are so few tenure-track positions available, so it’s not like you’ll be making a lot of money after graduation.”
Khosravi said the new tax plan also eliminates tax deductions for undergraduate and graduate student loans.
Students are not currently taxed on the payments they make on their student loans. For example, a student who makes $50,000 a year and spends $12,000 repaying a student loan would only need to pay taxes on the remaining $38,000 of their income, Khosravi said.
He added the bill also reduces tax credits students receive for academic expenses, such as educational software.
UC Student Regent Paul Monge, a law student at UC Berkeley, said the UC Board of Regents will be working with its federal government relations office to lobby congressional officials to oppose the bill. He added UC-wide graduate associations are organizing phone banks and outreaching to members of Congress to explain the plan’s impact on graduate education.
“I think the tax plan would have a chilling effect in deterring low-income students from pursuing graduate education,” Monge said. “We’ll be further (away) from achieving our goals for diversity in graduate education.”
He added he thinks the plan shows President Donald Trump’s administration does not properly value higher education and wants to reduce taxes on wealthy corporations at the expense of graduate students.
Khosravi said he plans to identify Senate Budget Committee members who are on the fence on the bill and lobby them to reverse or mitigate certain aspects of the plan. He added he hopes to send four members of GSA to Washington to meet with senators on the Senate Budget Committee.
Khosravi said he also wants to organize a UCLA graduate student walkout, in which students strike for a day in protest of the plan. He said 3,000 people have already responded to the Facebook event promoting next week’s walkout.
Skiles added he thinks the tax plan will deter students from pursuing doctoral degrees, which would put the United States at an economic disadvantage against other countries.
“Many qualified people will pass up on the opportunity to get a Ph.D.,” Skiles said. “There’s no telling how much technology, innovation and economic growth we’ll lose as a country.”