Every year, graduate students brace for another round of “death by a thousand cuts”—a cycle of funding cuts and fee hikes that has been battering higher education for years now. But the latest Republican tax plan promises death by a thousand deductions too, by eliminating a long-standing tuition exemption for higher education.
Students have previously been entitled to a modest tax break on tuition to help offset higher education costs, which provides a nontaxable tuition waiver that exempts earnings from academic jobs with their university. The GOP’s plan to strip the waiver could affect roughly 145,000 graduate students and 27,000 undergraduates nationwide. Losing the waiver might devastate graduate students already struggling with economic instability. Though the tuition break might just be a modest dent in programs typically costs about $16,000 to $30,000 per year, the overall effect could drive many grad students, most of whom earn less than $20,000, deeper into poverty and debt.
In addition to higher taxes, graduate students might soon face an even worse financial blow from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). With a new Republican majority, the judicial panel is now poised to strip away graduate workers’ union rights by overturning a recent ruling enabling students at private universities to organize and collectively bargain as instructors and researchers. Altogether, Trump’s multi-pronged economic assault will hit scholars in training with slashed incomes and lost labor rights, raising the financial strains of higher education, while the wealthy bank on more tax breaks.
Graduate workers rallied last week on the campuses of Harvard, Columbia, Boston College, Boston University, and Northeastern University to protest the conservative education agenda on two fronts: opposing the tax hike and demanding their right to organize.
Ian Bradley Perrin, a doctoral history student and part of the bargaining committee of the Graduate Workers Union at Columbia, which just won a multiyear battle to unionize, recalls the financial desperation that drove him to join the union. When he began studying and teaching with his program, a bureaucratic botch delayed his wage payments for months, leaving him impoverished, on his own as an international student, and “relying on the kindness of friends” to survive.
“For me, it became clear that a union would be a form of recourse that I would have” that could help him obtain the wages he was owed, he said. If his $25,000-a-year income gets slashed further by the loss of the tuition-based tax benefit, he added, “I am barely making ends meet as a graduate student anyway…. The idea that I would have to take tax on the tuition coverage by my school is kind of unthinkable to me….and it wouldn’t be affordable for most of the other grad students that I know. It’s a huge disincentive to go into higher education.”
Julie Kushner, director of United Auto Workers Region 9A, which represents graduate-student workers at Columbia and other private universities, said the tuition exemption was vital for building a more economically inclusive academic community. Cutting the exemption represents “just one more attack on our universities and working people more generally.”
The waiver cut could actually cost much more overall than just the few-thousand dollar tuition break itself for graduate students, since the loss of the benefit may, ironically, boost their on-paper taxable income just enough to push them into a higher tax bracket. So they might soon be paying higher taxes on incomes already low enough to leave some homeless and hungry.
Other cutbacks to higher education in the tax bill hit the most precarious students, including eliminating tax deductions for student-loan interest and imposing further restrictions on undocumented immigrant students’ access to tuition aid.
The disproportionate impact on graduate students, both in terms of the financial burden and the number affected, is a product of an increasingly commercialized education system, which bombards students with soaring tuitions and exploding debt, along with a hyper-competitive academic job market that could lead to even more economic insecurity post-graduation. Higher taxes will especially pain the many parents in grad school who struggle with family caregiving—especially women, who face greater economic barriers in academia because of childcare burdens.
Graduate students started rebelling in the 1990s by campaigning to organize unions. But over the years, the NLRB has switched positions on whether they are legally entitled to collective-bargaining rights under federal labor law. Last year a breakthrough ruling in the students’ favor triggered an organizing surge that then led to union votes at 13 major universities—including high-profile campaigns at Columbia, Yale, and the University of Chicago. The campaigns have so far affected about 18,000 students nationwide, and garnered support from many local and federal progressive lawmakers.
But the window for unionization might shutter soon, now that Trump has stacked the NLRB with anti-labor appointees who are expected to overturn the collective-bargaining decision along with other Obama-era precedents. And university administrators seem to be anticipating an anti-labor ruling, since they have been the primary opponent of graduate-union-organizing drives, arguing that unions violate traditions of scholarly hierarchy.
In reality, studies have shown that union representation for graduate students can benefit the entire institution, bringing higher wages as well as improved student-faculty relations. On principle, organizing together as campus workers builds labor solidarity across the campus community, while boosting parallel grassroots movements led by students on issues like academic freedom and immigrants’ rights.
Perrin argues that Columbia is actually doing itself a disservice by suppressing unions, since progressive students generally align with many of the stances Columbia’s administration has taken when criticizing the Trump administration’s policies.
“On the one hand, the admin of Columbia is decrying the Trump administration’s tax plan and voter suppression and a litany of liberal issues,” he said. Since students share the the institution’s outrage at Trump’s policies, “Working with us is a benefit for them…. but instead the admin is continuing to put itself in opposition to its students.”
As Trumpism lurks over every level of higher education, the erasure of the tuition waiver represents more than just a lost tax break; it symbolizes an anti-intellectual, anti-labor political system. The neoliberal attacks on higher education are driving the privatization of scholarship and academic labor. Making life even more precarious for graduate students widens institutional inequities, as financial and academic pressures—coupled with a dismal academic job market—pushes students deeper into financial crisis or toward dropping out.