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The GOP Tax Bill Is Designed to Bully Graduate Students

The GOP tax plan won't just shift wealth upward—it'll also remove the educational tools that make it possible for people to shift their own class status.
Paul Ryan GOP tax cuts

When I was in graduate school, I made between 10 and 15 thousand dollars a year. The money came to me, a lowly student of history, thanks to a few years of fellowship funding, many semesters as a teaching and research assistant, and a few other odd jobs on campus. It still wasn't enough, so I developed tricks. I attended talks based on whether there might be food. I developed a fine repertoire of peasant cooking (rice and beans, cabbage soup, potatoes, cheap noodles) to stretch the dollar. I played Irish music in pubs on weekends to make ends meet, counting on free dinners to feed my body and the copious amounts of whiskey bought by happy patrons to nourish my soul. Somehow, I covered the cost of books, clothes, and housing. I even occasionally had cars with working heaters (useful in Minnesota). What I didn't have to do was pay tuition or worry too much about taxes.

For those who have never struggled for a living wage while in graduate school, here's how it works: Along with a fellowship or assistantship, you get a tuition waiver. This means that the university still charges you tuition, but the department then "pays" for it. No money actually changes hands. But as of last week, the Republican Congress has decided to take that imaginary tuition and treat it as income, taxing it, and crushing graduate education in America as a result. The GOP has declared a (class-based) war on graduate school.

I have no detailed recollection of my taxes during those lean student years. My annual income was so low that I'd fill out the 1040EZ early, collect refunds, and quickly use that money to slow my credit card debt. But imagine if, instead of being taxed on the $10,000 I actually made, I had been taxed on an additional $30,000 of imaginary money. It wouldn't have bankrupted me because I would never have gone to graduate school in the first place. No one would, except for the most wealthy.

One question that emerges from all this is why universities even pretend to charge tuition to graduate students that they are funding. I have been unable to get a clear answer on the record. Select programs (in the sciences, mostly) at elite universities can roll tuition into grant funding, but those programs represent just a small fraction of the total number of graduate programs in the nation. Rather, I think the system exists because it is the nature of bureaucracies to proliferate. Some students do pay tuition, so a tuition rate is set. With the waivers, most people don't have to pay, and that part of the system has mostly worked. The marks in the ledger are useful mainly for tracking purposes.

Until now. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, the attack on "qualified tuition reductions" would affect around 145,000 graduate students and 27,000 undergraduates (mostly residential assistants in dorms). Moreover, the bill wouldn't raise much money for the federal budget, because few graduate students could pay. They'd just mostly drop out. Programs would collapse. Opportunities would vanish.

Maybe that's the idea. Hostility to higher education, especially in non-technical and therefore less-lucrative fields, has become embedded in Republican rhetoric about higher learning. In a series of tweets, GOP Senate staffer Scott Winship defended taxing tuition, arguing a.) that the GOP plan would tax a system that only benefits the wealthy, and b.) that it would help spare aspiring Ph.D.s from a life of poverty by keeping them from finishing a degree and becoming an adjunct professor. Both of these ideas cannot be true at the same time. In fact, neither is true. Graduate school can and does lead to all types of career outcomes—as Winship knows. He has advanced degrees in sociology and social policy from Harvard University. The graduate tuition waiver keeps such programs a reasonable option for non-elite folks, regardless of career outcomes.

Graduate school is not, alas, a clear ticket to a middle-class job in academia anymore. Honestly, it hasn't been for a long time, but if you really want to study a topic deeply, graduate school remains a worthwhile endeavor. When I advise undergraduates, I show them the grim job numbers, but say that, with funding, advanced education can be worthwhile. In academe, we have a lot of work to do re-programming our thinking about job outcomes and diversifying the training and assistance we provide graduate students. That process, though, only makes sense if our students can pursue advanced degrees without plunging deeply into debt.

The GOP tax plan is calculated not just to shift wealth upward, but also to remove some of the educational tools that make it possible for people to shift their own class status. It's not just tuition waivers. As detailed in The Atlantic, spread across undergraduate and graduate education, the GOP plan would strip funding from all fields, and sow chaos. For example, Republicans also want to eliminate student loan interest deductions and force students who don't graduate to repay Pell Grants. Overall, according to Congress' Joint Committee on Taxation, the cost of education would go up by $71 billion over 10 years.

The Republicans have crafted a vision for American higher education in which only the already-elite can chase their dreams, study deeply, develop new ideas, and become the creators of tomorrow. The GOP tax plan is what class warfare looks like.