COMMENTARY: Tax Cuts and Jobs Act will hurt U. students
Last week, the House of Representatives quietly voted to send thousands of Rutgers students into poverty. Entitled the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, the plan will both raise taxes on graduate students — in some cases tripling or quadrupling them — and force many of us to quit our jobs. As an English Ph.D. student, I can appreciate the ironic wordplay, even as I deplore the results.
Why would graduate students' taxes increase? Graduate students in Ph.D. programs usually do not pay tuition — it gets waived by the school. We are also paid a stipend. Currently, we are taxed on our stipend, which at Rutgers is between $18,000 to $25,000. But under the House bill, we would be taxed both on our salary and on the tuition we do not pay. Yes, you read that right — the tuition we do not pay. Add Rutgers’ tuition of $18,000 to $30,000 to the $25,000, and suddenly we are taxed as if we are making $55,000 a year — while still making only $18,000. That is between $3,100 to $7,000 in taxes. To put this tax into an undergraduate perspective, imagine you had gotten a scholarship to Rutgers, and the government chose to tax that scholarship as income. But your family’s income has not gone up — and suddenly, your family has to pay $7,000 on their $25,000 income. You can not afford to go to college anymore.
If you are an undergraduate, you might think our tuition waivers are unfair — not only do we not pay tuition, but we are paid a salary as well. Here is the explanation: Graduate students in Ph.D. programs work for their universities — we teach standalone classes, TA for lectures, grade papers, perform administrative tasks and work in labs. If you work 60 to 80 hours a week for your school, the thinking goes, you should not pay tuition (does your professor pay tuition?) and you should earn some money so you can buy food. In the past three years, I have taught six classes, two TA sections and more than 150 students, and I have discovered that it is surprisingly difficult to teach without food.
To put it bluntly, if the House bill passes, we may no longer be able to buy food. Many of us would fall into poverty and many would be forced to quit. This would absolutely affect undergraduates. Graduate students teach many of your classes, especially the small classes — they are often the ones who know you well enough to really help your work improve or to write you those crucial letters of recommendation. They hold office hours and answer your late night emails. They do all the work your professors do (including their own research and writing), for a fifth of the salary — imagine the cost of replacing all of us. Graduate students make undergraduate education possible.
They are also the reason that STEM labs remain open to do critical scientific research. The majority of scientific research in the United States done by graduate students aids the economy — which means if we lose graduate students because they can not afford to work in labs anymore, scientific progress in the United States will be slowed down by decades. Do you care about innovation? Cancer research? Food research? Medical research of any kind? Environmental research? Research into global warming? Technology research? Research into all of those aspects of science may be about to drastically slow down.
Finally, if you have ever been interested in graduate school, you may be out of luck unless you or your family are independently wealthy. Graduate education is now going to be available only to those with money to spare. Universities are already considered insulated — do we really want our future professors (and scientists) to come only from the highest classes of society?
If you want to help, you can do two things: Call your senators and tell them you oppose the graduate tax. Ask them not to vote for any version of the bill that will decimate American education and innovation. Then ask Rutgers to stand with its graduate students. University lobbyists are pushing against the tax, but unlike other universities, Rutgers has not publicly supported their graduate students. When asked what Rutgers would do to support their students if the bill passed, University President Robert L. Barchi refused to make plans. We are on our own — or maybe not.
I love teaching. I love my students. In the past three years, I have written dozens of letters that have helped my students get into graduate programs, get admitted into special study opportunities and find jobs. I have steered students toward financial aid offices, gotten them help at CAPS, given them one-on-one tutoring so they could finally graduate and cheered them on when they won scholarships, awards and accolades. It is a privilege to be a Rutgers student and instructor, to support you as you find your way. I am asking that you now support us in turn.
Perhaps the House included the grad tax because they think that no one cares enough about graduate students to say anything. I am hoping they are wrong.
Suzanne Boswell is a Ph.D. student in the English Literature Department.
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