University Graduate Students Walk Out To Protest Tax Plan That Hurts Them

Nov 29, 2017
Originally published on November 30, 2017 8:26 am

Graduate students around the country walked out of their classes, office hours, and research labs to protest the House Republican tax plan Wednesday.

"This plan is going to be disastrous for higher ed," said Jack Nicoludis, a Harvard graduate student in chemistry, who helped organize a protest on the campus. He said the bill would more than double his taxes.

In exchange for teaching courses or teaming up with professors on research projects, universities don't charge many Ph.D. students tuition, and give them modest stipends. The House bill would end the tax break students get on the value of their tuition waivers.

"Graduate students already struggle to get by and this will just be another factor that dissuades people from getting Ph.D.s," Nicoludis said.

He said he saves money by living in an attic. "In the winter it's very cold, in the summer it's very hot. I just deal with that because I want to pursue a graduate degree here. I want to get a Ph.D. I want to contribute to the science that's done in our country, and to do that I need to save some money by living in an unfavorable housing situation with five roommates," Nicoludis said.

At the University of Maryland, students said they felt like the tax plan treats them like trash, and they wore garbage bags to a rally.

Nat Baldino, a third-year Ph.D. student at the university's Department of Women's Studies, has already had to take out student loans to pay for basics such as utilities and rent.

"There's a misconception that grad school and academia in general is this sort of lofty enterprise," Baldino said. "We already don't get paid a livable wage — and as someone who is a first-generation college student, I already came into graduate school with tens of thousands of dollars of debt from undergrad."

"If this bill were to pass ... I don't know how I would live," Baldino said.

Jonathan Brower, a seventh-year Ph.D. student at the University of Maryland's history department, said the university gives him $20,000 a year in exchange for working as a history instructor, a job that he says is extremely labor intensive.

On top of teaching, Brower is responsible for running conferences and writing his dissertation, and he receives a $20,000 tuition waiver.

The stipend doesn't exactly fund a lifestyle of luxury. Brower is paid biweekly, and he's often down to pennies before his direct deposit hits, despite living with his parents.

The plan would tax the value of students' free tuition — meaning students like Brower would have to pay taxes as if he made $40,000 a year.

And that's a massive difference to a group of people that make very little money.

Katie Brown and Yvonne Slosarski, both seventh-year communications Ph.D. students at the University of Maryland, say grad students are already extremely vulnerable.

"Our work, our education, our livelihood is all already combined into this one amalgamated thing that itself is very unstable," Slosarski said. "And there's just no promise we'll get employment after."

Brown said the bill would have long-term consequences. "Only rich people would be able to receive a graduate degree," she said. "When you limit the people that can create knowledge, what you get is bad knowledge. The potential devastation from this is immense."

About 145,000 grad students received a tuition reduction in 2011-12, the American Council on Education says.

None of the students we spoke to were optimistic about the plan. And neither are economists, who say the increased taxes would discourage Americans from seeking advanced degrees at a time when the country badly needs a better-educated workforce.

"Dollar for dollar, this might be the most misguided part of the plan," Kim Rueben, a senior fellow in the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, told NPR earlier this month.

"What you're doing is increasing the cost of going to graduate school ... and ignoring the fact that the government makes much more money if people have more education," she said.

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This is what it sounded like at dozens of universities across the country today.


UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: (Singing) Which side are you on? Which side are you on? Which side are you on? Which side are you on?

MCEVERS: Those are graduate students at the University of Maryland. They were protesting the Republican tax plan. Grad students would have to pay a lot more in taxes if the House's version of the bill were to become law. Now we're joined by NPR's Chris Arnold, who is covering the potential impact of the tax legislation. And Chris, how exactly does the House plan treat graduate students?

CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: Hi, Kelly. So it doesn't treat them very well according to the grad students. And I mean, honestly, looking at the numbers here, this plan would really hurt grad students financially - a lot of them. And many are struggling already, right? I mean, these are people who are trying to get an advanced degree. They're earning small stipends that don't even really put them in the middle class in terms of income. And they're upset about this.

And I've been talking with students - some of them economics, Ph.D. students at MIT. So I think they're crunching the numbers right here. And they're saying that the House plan would double or triple the taxes that they have to pay. And let's just say that again. We're talking about a 200 or 300 percent increase in their taxes.

MCEVERS: That is a lot.

ARNOLD: Yeah. And you know - and so they're just shocked and wide-eyed and, like - how does this make any sense, you know? So as you said, across the country, there's - there are a lot of protests today. And at the University of Maryland, about a hundred grad students turned out. Some were wearing garbage bags to say, hey, you're treating us like trash in this tax bill. Yvonne Slosarski is a doctoral student in communications, and she said this.

YVONNE SLOSARSKI: We're being attacked essentially. It taxes stuff that we never see as income.

MCEVERS: What stuff is she talking about there?

ARNOLD: Well, the stuff that she's talking about there is - to find some of the money that Republicans need for this big tax cut, they are going after what are called tuition waivers. And for a lot of grad students to get through their Ph.D. programs and stuff, they work. They teach classes. They help their professors with research. And in exchange, they get free tuition and a small stipend. But the House bill would make them count the value of that tuition as taxable income. So tuition can cost $50,000 a year. That's money they never actually see. But a student that's making, say, a $30,000 stipend would be taxed as if they were making $80,000. That means a big tax increase.

MCEVERS: Right. And grad students that make that much money to start with. Are they worried that some of them won't be able to afford going to grad school at all?

ARNOLD: Absolutely. I talked to a guy at Harvard, Jack Nicoludis. He's a student we spoke to there. He's getting a Ph.D. in chemistry. And you know, Harvard might sound like the most chichi and privileged situation, but he says, look; he's barely getting by.

JACK NICOLUDIS: So the way that I save money is I live in an attic that doesn't have a door to it. So in the winter, it's very cold. In the summer, it's very hot. And I just deal with that because, you know, I want to pursue a graduate degree here. I want to get a Ph.D. I want to contribute to the science that's done in our country. And to do that, I need to save some money by living in an unfavorable housing situation with five roommates.

ARNOLD: With his five roommates - and he sleeps in sweatpants and a sweater and an electric blanket and two cats. But look; he's legitimately worried that a lot of students will just decide that they cannot afford to get a Ph.D. They'll say, I can't afford $75,000 in student debt; I'll go get a job. So economists say this would be really bad because we need a more educated workforce. We don't want to discourage people from getting an advanced degree.

MCEVERS: Right. And we should stress that this provision about graduate students is currently only in the House version of the tax bill. It's not in the one before the Senate.

ARNOLD: That's right. So a lot of grad students are hoping that it gets chopped out of the final bill.

MCEVERS: NPR's Chris Arnold, thank you very much.

ARNOLD: Thanks, Kelly. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.