The GOP's war on graduate students: How the House tax bill will make graduate school unaffordable

If House Republicans get their way, graduate degrees will become a luxury item for the wealthy

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published December 10, 2017 8:30AM (EST)


Anti-intellectualism has a long and inglorious history in the United States. It can be traced all the way back to the 1820s, when Andrew Jackson wrested the presidency away from John Q. Adams by saying that Adams "can write" and Jackson "can fight." By the 1960s, historian Richard Hofstadter penned the classic book "Anti-Intellectualism in American Life," and more recently, President Donald Trump has waged a war against scientific facts (as well as other kinds of knowledge) that has, unfortunately, served him quite well politically.

Yet even in light of this background, the Republican effort to financially punish graduate students is still striking. If a nation is to produce quality scholars — that is, recruiting the best and brightest rather than merely the richest to write our books, conduct our research and teach in our classrooms — then we need to make sure higher level education is affordable to everyone.

The Republicans' new tax reform bill may make that impossible.

"There's a difference right now between what the House bill does and what the Senate bill does," Ben Miller, senior director of postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress, told Salon. "So the House bill proposes to tax tuition where it is given to graduate students, and my understanding of that provision is that the waiver is designed off of whatever the lifted price is. So if they are an out-of-state student and they get a waiver, it is for the full lifted price of their out-of-state tuition."

The good news is that the Senate bill does not include that provision, making it entirely possible that these aspects of the tax reform legislation will be jettisoned in conference before they can become law. The bad news is, well, that they're under consideration at all.

"The new bill would hurt me and many other grad students immensely because we live off of our stipends essentially," TiAir Riggins, a graduate student in Biomedical engineering at Purdue University, told Salon. "Also, I'm an out of state student, so since it costs about $60,000 for me to go to Purdue, and my stipend is $1,950 a month, I would be taxed as if I made $85,000. I wouldn't be able to afford that, so I would be forced to drop out of my Ph.D. program."

Riggins said she has dreamed of being a research doctor since childhood. "I come from a middle class, single parent home and have no other outside help financially," she said. "I'd have to not only give up on my dream but also give up my research. Most major research and discoveries in America come from universities and academia."

Riggins' concerns were very similar to those voiced by Ian Brine, who is studying for his MA in English at Syracuse University. After pointing out that his stipend is $15,300 and that the only reason he could withstand the potential impact of the tax bill is because of the financial support of his long-term girlfriend, Brine explained to Salon that "by including waived tuition as taxable income, the federal government demands that I pay roughly a third of the money I receive. One year of graduate education at Syracuse University in my program costs $30,000. The estimates that I’ve been able to find predict that $45,300 of what is now considered 'taxable income' comes to $3,972 in tax owed. I will also be losing exemptions and deductions I would receive for making payments on my student loans."

Brine added, "At the end of the day, if I were single, I’d have $15,300 to pay roughly $5,000, effectively forcing me to live in upstate New York on about $10,000 a year while working 65 hours a week. In my city, that’s not tenable. I have friends in my department who are not as lucky as I am. Should this tax bill go into effect with the language regarding tuition waivers unchanged, they will be priced out of the program."

To be clear, it isn't only graduate students who would be negatively impacted by this proposed law.

"If the House bill became the final bill, graduate students would pay taxes on their waived tuition. Almost 12 million Americans would lose the ability to deduct a part of their student loan interest on taxes. Employees would have to start paying taxes on training provided by their employer. And other changes like that," Miller told Salon.

It's important to remember that these proposed changes aren't theoretical abstractions or numbers to be moved around a ledger until some calculation is achieved. There are great minds, eager to contribute to our society, that will have their careers disrupted or even ruined if these policies are implemented.

As a graduate student myself, I can't claim that I'm unbiased here. What I can say is that I know, from firsthand experience, that graduate school work is tough, draining and at times downright painful. It is also a full-time job, and if anything, our government should be making it easier for people to support themselves while pursuing it — not harder.

Then again, considering the disdain that American policymakers seem to have for intellectuals, perhaps it's not surprising at all that we have reached this point.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a professional writer whose work has appeared in multiple national media outlets since 2012 and exclusively at Salon since 2016. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012, was a guest on Fox Business in 2019, repeatedly warned of Trump's impending refusal to concede during the 2020 election, spoke at the Commonwealth Club of California in 2021, was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022 and appeared on NPR in 2023. His diverse interests are reflected in his interviews including: President Jimmy Carter (1977-1981), Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak (1999-2001), animal scientist and autism activist Temple Grandin, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright (1997-2001), director Jason Reitman ("The Front Runner"), inventor Ernő Rubik, comedian Bill Burr ("F Is for Family"), novelist James Patterson ("The President's Daughter"), epidemiologist Monica Gandhi, theoretical cosmologist Janna Levin, voice actor Rob Paulsen ("Animaniacs"), mRNA vaccine pioneer Katalin Karikó, philosopher of science Vinciane Despret, actor George Takei ("Star Trek"), climatologist Michael E. Mann, World War II historian Joshua Levine (consultant to "Dunkirk"), Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (2013-present), dog cognition researcher Alexandra Horowitz, Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson (2012, 2016), comedian and writer Larry Charles ("Seinfeld"), seismologist John Vidale, Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Lieberman (2000), Ambassador Michael McFaul (2012-2014), economist Richard Wolff, director Kevin Greutert ("Saw VI"), model Liskula Cohen, actor Rodger Bumpass ("SpongeBob Squarepants"), Senator John Hickenlooper (2021-present), Senator Martin Heinrich (2013-present), Egyptologist Richard Parkinson, Rep. Eric Swalwell (2013-present), Fox News host Tucker Carlson, actor R. J. Mitte ("Breaking Bad"), theoretical physicist Avi Loeb, biologist and genomics entrepreneur William Haseltine, comedian David Cross ("Scary Movie 2"), linguistics consultant Paul Frommer ("Avatar"), Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (2007-2015), computer engineer and Internet co-inventor Leonard Kleinrock and right-wing insurrectionist Roger Stone.

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