Obtaining a graduate degree is a demanding experience. But for many students, being able to contribute to research and knowledge in a field they are passionate about is a dream come true.
What graduate study should not be is an unattainable goal due to financial barriers put in place by governmental tax policy. Unfortunately, this may become a reality in the US if the proposed Republican tax reform laws are approved and put into place.
According to the American Council on Education, approximately 145,000 graduate students can afford their studies due to a specific clause in the current US tax policy which allows students to work for a university as either a teaching or a research assistant. In exchange, the student receives a small salary of approximately 13,000 to 35,000 dollars and the university waives the student’s tuition. Since the students never see the tuition money, they are only taxed on their salary.
This means the students usually pay the government an average of 2,000 dollars and a maximum of 4,500 dollars depending on their individual financial situation. The remaining money, though still meagre, is usually just enough for the students to live off.
The proposed Republican tax reform law would remove this clause, potentially lead to financial disaster for many students as it students would be taxed on both their salary and the tuition payments. By adding taxes on students’ tuition, taxes would rise by between 30 to 400 per cent depending on the university.
The United States poverty line is 12,060 dollars for a single individual household. A student at Carnegie Mellon University who receives a salary of 24,000 and a tax waiver of 46,870 dollars could see their taxes rise from 1,574 to 9,076 dollars, leaving said student with a salary of 14,924 dollars; only 3,000 dollars above the poverty line.
We should not be expecting students, or anyone for that matter, to struggle on so little money. University should be a time for new experiences and learning, not one in which your capacity to do these things is undermined by an underlying worry of how you will pay for basic necessities.
In addition to financially impacting current PhD students, the removal of the clause could defer future PhD students, particularly those from lower income families. This is where the danger for the universities themselves lies.
Teaching and research assistant graduate students play a key role in the functioning of many universities. Teaching assistants (TAs) are an important part in the education of undergraduates by leading tutorials and/or lab sessions. Cost wise, they are cheaper than the adjunct professors who would normally run these sessions.
With less graduate students working as TAs, universities may have to pay for more adjunct professors or risk increasing the number of undergraduate students per tutorial session. Not only is this tax reform harming graduate students, it is also compromising the quality of the teaching received by undergraduates, signifying an attack on University education in general.
Of the 145,000 students currently under this clause, 60 per cent are STEM students. As research assistants, these students are contributing to the finding of cures for diseases and new technology. According to biomedicine professor Patrick Schloss, the loss of graduate students could harm the pool of future researchers needed to solve current health problems. Furthermore, this loss could diminish America’s global competitiveness in science fields.
The removal of the clause spells danger for the higher education. We must support and defend the graduate students of the US against this clause, which will be catastrophic for students and universities alike.
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