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.”