GOP Tax Bill Would End Higher Education as We Know It

Guest blog post by Jenny C. Bledsoe, Emory University

In today’s Vox article about the GOP tax bill’s plan to count graduate tuition waivers as taxable income, Jen Kirby suggests that most graduate students on fellowship work in laboratories: “since you’re cleaning petri dishes, the university waives that tuition.”[1] In a Washington Post article from today, Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education, explains how many people benefit from graduate school tuition waivers, “Roughly 145,000 graduate students benefitted from this in 2011-12, the most recent year for which data is available, with roughly 60 percent working the critical fields of science, technology, engineering and math.”[2] The unnamed 40%, I suppose, are graduate students in the (less critical) humanities and social sciences. Significantly, graduate students in the humanities, especially in English and writing programs, are often responsible for teaching introductory undergraduate courses as well as upper-division courses at some institutions.

I am happy to see the issue being raised in the mainstream media—after all, this issue needs as much attention as possible if we are going to convince our Congresspeople to remove these damaging provisions from the bill—but most writers have emphasized the effects of the change on STEM graduate students. As Kirby writes in Vox, “the tuition waivers would also hit the STEM fields particularly hard.” It is not productive to debate who is more adversely impacted; if this bill passes, all graduate students will experience negative consequences to their personal finances. For the humanities, making tuition waivers taxable income will further de-incentivize enrollment in PhD programs, and colleges and universities will eventually have a major staffing problem on their hands, one that impacts undergraduate education as much as graduate education.

The GOP tax bill would have cascading effects for universities across the country. Humanities PhD students are responsible for teaching many undergraduate courses, including first-year writing and general education courses that meet requirements for undergraduates in all majors. If students in PhD programs are struggling to meet their basic needs (more than they already do) because of paying large federal income tax bills out of their meager stipends, they will have to take on extra work. Dedicating more time to simply making ends meet, graduate students will have less time to devote to the undergraduate students they teach, thus lowering the quality of undergraduate education.

In addition to causing current graduate students to struggle financially while finishing their programs with this increased tax burden, this tax change—especially as it affects those attending private institutions with extremely high tuition costs (consider my institution, Emory University, where the first three years of a PhD program currently hold a yearly tuition charge of $61,200)—will effectively deter low- and middle-income students from enrolling in graduate programs. We are all advised not to start a PhD program unless it pays a living wage, and there are few places where the current stipend would still provide a living wage after the tax increase. How would universities be able to ameliorate the tax burden for graduate students without cutting funds from other parts of the university budget?

Graduate school in the humanities is already a gamble with few tenure-track academic job prospects. The increased debt load and years of living in or close to poverty would likely not pay off for most students. Eventually, there would be fewer and fewer lower income people in graduate programs, and those pursuing PhDs would likely be independently wealthy and not in need of institutional support to attend. Colleges and universities would have a shortage of qualified lecturers to teach undergraduate classes. You might say that adjunct labor would meet that need. That would likely be the case at first, but years down the line, that adjunct pool would also decrease in size given fewer people pursuing PhDs. And if the people pursuing PhDs were mostly wealthy, they wouldn’t need to accept low-paying adjunct positions to make ends meet. Even if universities could meet their course needs with adjunct labor, adjunct instructors cost more than graduate student instructors. Universities would have to offset this cost with hikes to undergraduate tuition or cuts to other parts of the university budget.

This tax bill will undoubtedly have further ripple effects that reach outside higher education and into American society. If passed, this bill would seriously limited access to higher education and thus career advancement opportunities. Our only recourse is to call our representatives and senators and explain the devastating impact of this bill on American higher education. We must prevent these anti-education provisions from passing Congress in this bill or others in the future.