Although the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act signed by Donald Trump on Dec. 22, 2017 does not contain the repeal of tuition remissions for graduate students employed as research assistants (RAs) and teaching assistants (TAs), the occasion of this near-crisis has brought to light a number of important issues for graduate students at Hopkins. The graduate student members of Teachers and Researchers United (TRU) at Hopkins want to emphasize that these issues will outlive the proposed Grad Tax and continue to pose a threat to the stability of doctoral study in the U.S.
First, as doctoral students for whom the repeal of the tuition waiver would have had devastating consequences, we would like to address the University’s woefully inadequate response to this historically unprecedented threat to graduate study. Second, the tuition waiver debate reveals the unique vulnerability of doctoral students in our capacity as Hopkins employees.
The Grad Tax provision in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, passed in the House of Representatives on Nov. 16, would have treated a doctoral student’s annual $52,000 tuition remission as taxable income. This means that grads at Hopkins, with annual incomes of $22,000 to $30,000, would have seen our take-home pay slashed by more than one third, based on a calculation by Bloomberg School of Public Health (JHSPH) student Benjamin Ackerman.
For many graduate students, especially those of us from low-income backgrounds and who are supporting families, these cuts to our income would have ended our ability to continue pursuing a graduate education.
This proposal represented a crisis that deserved a swift and decisive response from our employer. Instead, we waited nearly a month after the passage of the House bill before the first hints of the administration’s contingency plan were distributed to the graduate student body in a public report by an administrator to the Graduate Representative Organization (GRO) General Council on Dec. 11.
Even here, the University never outlined concrete plans to reduce the financial burden on graduate students. Through these unsettling times, all we received were general assurances that we would be kept informed of any decisions made by the University. As those most directly affected by the proposed Grad Tax, we deserved greater inclusion in the formulation of contingency plans in the event of the bill’s passage.
The administration’s failure to promptly provide concrete assurances that we would be protected from any repeal of the tuition waiver caused real uncertainty about our ability to continue our work and our future livelihood. Since graduate school would have been unaffordable for many of us had the tuition waiver been repealed, some contemplated leaving their programs for non-academic lines of work.
While we commend the political lobbying the University engaged in around the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, these actions were insufficient. Indeed, all communications from the administration have attempted to shift the attention and blame for this situation to national politics, while sidestepping their responsibility to guarantee the future viability of graduate education at Hopkins.
The second, related set of issues we would like to address pertains to the relationship between the University and its doctoral students, who are employed as RAs and TAs.
The debate over tuition remission for doctoral students reminds us that some of us continue to pay for tuition out-of-pocket. This is the norm in the JHSPH and the Peabody Institute, where graduate students juggle short-term RA or TA contracts with other types of employment to pay off exorbitant tuition fees.
Moreover, many of us in the dissertation phase of our programs no longer receive tuition remission from our departments, and we pay around $5000 per year in tuition fees, even though we are teaching and no longer attending classes. In effect, we are paying simply to continue working on our dissertations.
Why does “tuition remission” exist at all, considering that many — if not most — doctoral students spend all but one or two years of their studies working as RAs and TAs? In reality, charging tuition for PhD candidates allows Hopkins and other universities to bring in millions of “overhead costs” as part of federal grants, according to The Washington Post. This is a dangerous practice that drains taxpayer funds at a time when federal research budgets are seeing massive cuts.
Yet, there is a more insidious reason for the continued collection of tuition fees from RAs and TAs who do essential work for the University: to continue characterizing us as students, not employees. Characterizing us as students is tremendously advantageous to Hopkins and other universities. Our work as instructors, RAs and TAs can be conveniently cast as a component of the education that we receive at the University, rather than as labor we perform for it.
By continuing to charge and waive tuition, the University can avoid admitting that doctoral students who serve as RAs and TAs are workers who should be granted the same the rights and privileges as other employees.
In conclusion, the doctoral workers of TRU would like to seize the occasion of this narrowly avoided disaster in higher education to reflect on the institution of “tuition remission” and how it serves the other, greater fiscal interests of the University. Why do Hopkins and other universities claim that there exists an enormous amount of money that the University simply pays itself?
Perhaps more importantly, some doctoral workers continue to pay large sums in tuition, despite being among the University’s most financially vulnerable employees. This includes late-stage PhD candidates on teaching fellowships, who are paid even less than RAs and TAs while teaching full courses, and doctoral students at the JHSPH. We demand that Hopkins stops the absurd practice of collecting tuition fees from all PhD candidates.
Samantha Carmel is a PhD candidate in the Humanities Center and Ding Xuan Ng is a PhD candidate in economics. Both are members of Teachers and Researchers United.