Republican tax bill worries grad students

By VALERIE CHAVEZ | November 30, 2017


PUBLIC DOMAIN Currently, the Senate bill does not have the provision to tax tuition waivers.

This article has since been updated to include latest developments. See below.

Earlier this month, Republicans in the House of Representatives passed a tax reform bill. This bill is intended to provide tax cuts for both corporations and individuals. It also includes a provision that would repeal current tax exemptions on graduate students’ tuition waivers.

Currently, the Senate version of the bill does not contain this provision. However, if the bill passes, it would impact students who receive tuition waivers from working at the University, usually as researchers or teaching assistants. Fellowships or scholarships will not be counted as taxable income.

The new provision will not be put into effect for graduate students at the School of Medicine, as their tuition waivers are not tied to employment. However, the provision will impact most graduate students in other divisions of the University like the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences and the Whiting School of Engineering.

Peter Weck, a second year physics PhD student at Hopkins, said that were this tax plan to go through, he would have to seriously consider dropping out of his program.

“Based on the numbers I’ve seen in the physics department, we’d be making less than a minimum wage full-time job. Minimum wage doesn’t mean a livable wage,” Weck said.

He was disappointed with  the University’s response to the graduate students’ concerns.  For him, initial correspondence with the University came through a series of emails forwarded from the administration to the physics department.

Weck wished that the University had been more proactive. He would also like to see Hopkins state more concrete plans and take a stronger stance against the bill.

“I’m still hoping that they will follow up with something more — more of a stand, something loud and public to tell us that they are behind us instead of an ‘after the fact, we are paying attention to this,’” Weck said.

Ashley Grant, a PhD student at the School of Education, is also worried that  the plan will make it difficult for her to complete her program.

“If we got taxed on our tuition, it would be about half of what we make,” Grant said. “We make about $25,000, and I’m estimating the tax would be around $10,000 or 12,000.”

Grant also expressed concerns that pursuing a PhD could become a privilege afforded to only the very wealthy.

“It would make getting a PhD unviable for most people,” Grant said. “It could say a lot about our country and our values, like do we really value knowledge and contributing to science and technology?”

Daniel Esquivel, class of 2017, wanted to pursue a PhD because of his experiences doing research as an undergraduate. However, the provision may potentially affect his decision.

“I was under the impression that tuition waivers would make living as a PhD student somewhat affordable,” he said. “Diminishing those [PhD] opportunities during a time in which issues in science are more complex than ever seems completely counterintuitive. It seems bizarre and intellectually detached.”

On Nov. 13, the Graduate Representative Organization (GRO) sent out an online petition demanding a response from the University. As of Nov. 17, the petition obtained a total of 1,185 signatures, which GRO delivered to the Office of the Provost.

GRO wants the University to increase transparency in their communications with graduate students about this issue. Additionally, they are requesting that the University appoint a point of contact for concerned graduate students and hold information sessions or town halls about the possible consequences of the tax plan.

In response, the University sent out an email to graduate students on Nov. 17, addressing their concerns and assuring them that they were working with other Universities as well as allies in Congress to oppose the tax changes.

Executive Director of Media Relations Dennis O’Shea also wrote an email to The News-Letter on behalf of the University, reiterating that the school is working to combat the tax bill.

“We are working to oppose any changes in the tax code that could be detrimental to students, other members of our university community and the university itself.” O’Shea wrote. “Enactment of those provisions would hurt students and their families and limit access to higher education. We are encouraged that the tuition provisions are not currently in the Senate bill.”

On Wednesday, GRO held a two-hour call-a-thon. In an email to The News-Letter, they expressed hope that students will call their representatives in Congress, particularly in the states of Tennessee, Arizona, Oklahoma, Kansas, Maine, Wisconsin and Montana.

“The GRO is working on engaging as many community members as possible to call the Senators. We sent out an email yesterday with the list of Senators, their office phone numbers as well as Twitter aliases to the graduate student list-serv in the effort to mobilize them against this issue,” GRO wrote.

They also explained that  GRO provided graduate students with premade tweets and calling scripts and that they are working closely with the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students (NAGPS).

While this tax plan will not affect all students in the University, it is believed that this bill will more adversely impact students at private institutions as opposed to public ones.

Vetri Velan, a PhD student in physics at the University of California, Berkeley, analyzed the tax plan in a memo and spoke to The News-Letter about its effects on graduate students. His analysis went viral on Facebook, and it was cited by many major publications, including The New York Times and The San Francisco Chronicle.

“We see strong evidence that a PhD student at a public university would see their taxes go up by 30 to 60 percent,” Velan said. “A student at a private university would see their taxes increase by a factor of two to four.”

Velan also emphasized that this bill would more adversely affect what he called “non-traditional students.” This includes students who have children or spouses, students with high medical expenses and international students.

“If this bill passes, we’re going to see a lot fewer students going to graduate school at all. We’re going to see fewer students going to school at private universities, or in the United States,” Velan said.


Update Dec. 1 1:20 p.m.:

On early Saturday morning, the Senate passed their version of the bill with 51 votes. The Senate bill does not eliminate tax deductions for graduate students’ tuition waivers.

On Thursday, University President Ronald J. Daniels and Johns Hopkins Medicine CEO and Dean of Medical Faculty Paul Rothman sent a letter to several members of the U.S. Senate and the Maryland congressional delegation urging them to remove provisions in the Republican tax bill that harm the University and its community.

In the letter, Daniels and Rothman outlined their concerns regarding some of the provisions in the bill, specifically how it might prevent graduate students from continuing their studies. According to Daniels and Rothman, the bill would increase costs for about 1,700 Hopkins students in a wide range of departments and academic disciplines.

“Especially concerning is the proposed elimination of a number of tax provisions that are critical to enabling students and their families to access higher education,” they wrote.

The bill also includes provisions such as increasing taxes on private university endowments and eliminating a tax deduction on the interest accrued by student loans.

“[This] will further increase the cost of college for those who have already made this important investment in their future and may in turn impact career choices or delay important life expenditures, such as a first home,” they wrote.

The Senate and the House must now agree on a final bill before sending it to the White House to be signed into law by President Donald Trump.

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