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Unpopular grad tax might be cut from GOP tax plan

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There’s no tax on tuition waivers in the latest version of the bill, Senator says

Berkeley Protests
Berkeley Protests
Photo by Alex Parkin / The Verge

The GOP’s tax bill may not end up raising taxes for graduate students as much as they had feared, Bloomberg reports. The final version of the tax plan that blends individual bills from the House and Senate won’t tax the thousands of dollars many graduate students receive in tuition reductions as income, Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT) told Bloomberg.

At least, that’s what Daines and an unidentified source told Bloomberg that House and Senate Republicans tentatively agreed to on Wednesday as the GOP continues to push for a vote on the bill before Christmas. It will be welcome news for the graduate students concerned that the tax hike would financially devastate them, and make pursuing a PhD an option only for the wealthy.

“We see this as a huge victory for higher education and a boost to our confidence that when we come together and fight, we win,” says Margaret Downey, a PhD student studying social welfare and an elected representative for UC Berkeley’s graduate student union. But, she adds, “We’re also aware of how this bill is really bad for our society, and in particular for working people.”

PhD students usually earn small stipends for teaching and doing research. The university, their adviser, or grant money also tend to cover (or waive) their tuition fees. Right now, only that stipend is taxed, but the House’s tax plan would also categorize these tuition waivers as income. Depending on the graduate program, that could have bumped students earning $20,000 a year into the $70,000 tax bracket.

The possibility that this tax could go through — plus provisions in the House bill that would eliminate student loan interest deductionsignited protests across the country. Rutgers University graduate student Kathleen Farley told The Verge in November that she might have to drop out if her tuition waiver were taxed. She’s relieved to hear the tax may be scrapped: “We would have seen the implications of this ripple throughout any field that requires people with specialized training,” she says. “It would have weakened America’s influence across the world.”

But, Farley adds, this doesn’t mean that the debate over graduate student tuition is resolved: universities still need to justify charging graduate students tuition in the first place, she says. “We would like to see the abolition of tuition for graduate workers. We’re continuing the conversation.”

Dee Payton, a first year PhD student studying philosophy at Rutgers, is waiting to hear how the other tax measures affecting higher education have fared in this latest version of the bill. Eliminating student loan interest deductions, as the House’s plan proposes, and taxing certain universities’ endowments (proposed by both the House and Senate), could still hurt higher education.

“It might not be the case that graduate students are hurt in this particular way, namely by paying taxes on income they don’t receive,” Payton says. “But I think academia as a whole will still suffer.” And since graduate students are an integral part of academia, she says, they’ll suffer right along with it.

Update December 13th, 7:30PM ET: Updated to include graduate student comments.