By Alisa Harris
November 10, 2017

When I read how the new House GOP tax plan would treat graduate students, I didn’t know whether to laugh because it couldn’t be real or to rage at how efficiently it would destroy a middle-class person’s hopes of ever joining academia.

Last week, House Republicans unveiled a new bill that seems like an attack directed against higher education. It taxes some universities’ endowment earnings, repeals tax credits for education expenses, and gets rid of student loan interest deductions. For my family, one of these proposals really hit home. Republicans want to raise taxes on Ph.D. students by turning their waived tuition into taxable income.

My husband is getting a Ph.D. in European history, and I support him by working in communications at another university. We’re lucky in many ways—he has a generous stipend by Ph.D. standards and a fellowship that lowers his health care costs—but we have never been rich. He is a first-generation college student raised in a blue-collar family, like I was. He’s earning half of what he made working in journalism before he started the Ph.D., and we both have a load of debt from our master’s degrees even though we got tuition benefits and scholarships, and both worked full-time while we studied.

In other words, the GOP tax hike would make it impossible for middle-class people like me to enter academia. It’s not just the humanities that Republican politicians sometimes make light of. It would also affect so-called STEM fields, which help maintain the U.S. technological and economic edge, but which are already much less diverse than humanities. There is some good news: The Senate’s tax plan, released Thursday, doesn’t appear to endorse the House position. But let me be clear: If you think the problem with academia is that it’s too elitist, taxing graduate students’ forgiven tuition will only make the situation worse.

Here’s how Ph.D. programs work. Graduate students make a modest stipend—maybe as low as $15,000—that supposedly covers living expenses. They get their tuition— perhaps $45,000 for the first couple years—waived. Waiving tuition may sound like a perk, but it’s fair because they’re expected to work. They lead class discussions, give lectures, grade papers, plan classes, teach students, hold office hours, and free up time for professors to apply for the grants that rake in the cash that funds the research that pumps up the rankings that bring in the students. Ph.D. students educate America’s college students. They make the university run.

Under the GOP bill, that $45,000 of tuition suddenly counts as income. You’re taxed as if you make $60,000 even though your income is actually $15,000. Picture living on $15,000 and paying the taxes of someone who makes four times as much. It hurts.

And I know just how much it would hurt because I’ve been taxed on tuition benefits myself.

I work for a university that waives most of the cost of tuition for employees who take classes there, and I took advantage of this benefit to get my MBA while I worked full-time. But the taxes were staggering. The first $5,250 of tuition benefits were tax-exempt, another benefit the House GOP tax bill would like to eliminate. But the other $18,000 to $20,000 of my tuition benefits were taxed as income.

It wasn’t easy to see 30% of my paycheck evaporate — and I make several times what a Ph.D. student makes. The aspiring academics I know are already scraping by. They salvage thrown-away furniture or shop at Goodwill. Their stipends don’t cover the cost of insuring their kids, and they rely on friends for transportation because they don’t have cars. One couple I know—raising two kids on two stipends—collected tutoring cash in a jar labeled “daycare fund.” The husband spent weekends and evenings working long hours to raise the $200 they needed for daycare each week.

Other students I know work at temp agencies, teach classes as adjuncts, take on extra grading, organize conferences, edit journals, and work as research assistants, resident assistants, library employees, and bartenders—sometimes while supporting their own struggling or unemployed family members. “If you’re keeping track,” one friend tells me, “that’s five paid positions I maintain just to make ends meet.”

Republicans are right in one sense. Academia already favors our country’s elites—and that’s because it’s easier to live on poverty wages when you have an economic cushion. First-generation college graduates who earn a Ph.D. are much less likely to have such a cushion. They are more likely to have heavy debt loads; they take longer to finish their degree; and they are less likely to get research grants and fellowships. Living on $15,000 is easier if you don’t have debt from undergraduate or masters programs, if you have a second household income, if you have a parent paying your rent or a relative giving you housing, and if you have a highly-educated family supporting your dreams.

It’s true that society needs professors who aren’t just east-coast and Ivy league scions. Half of our college students have parents who never attended college, and they need faculty members who understand how confusing and difficult the system can be. Society benefits when its thinkers, teachers, and researchers have diverse backgrounds, different perspectives, and deep connections outside of the ivory tower.

Under the GOP tax bill, people with a lower-income background will take one look at the Ph.D option and laugh. It’s already hard. This bill makes it impossible.

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