About three years into my graduate program the emails, letters and blog comments started. A trickle at first, maybe only one or two things every couple of months. Now, five years into my program, the questions, calls for help, requests for opinions, and desire to share stories of corvid joy, sadness or sheer mystery are relentless.
And I love it. It’s one of my favorite parts of my work. Few graduate students get to engage with the public in the way that I do or will ever experience the public appreciating the research they do or the expertise they’ve acquired through the often tremendous personal sacrifice of being a grad student. Hardly any will ever get an email saying “your research is so cool” or “keep up the good work” or “your work changed my heart and mine about something” or “thank you.” They won’t ever hear those words despite the fact their research may have far more reaching and positive effects on the health and wellness of their non-human and human communities than mine does. But I do get to hear those things because the nature of my research means it makes for a cool blog and gets written about in publications like National Geographic and The Week. And I am truly grateful for that. But on behalf of all those students who aren’t so well known I want to use my platform to ask something of you now. Because our existence as graduate students is under attack.
If you’ve been keeping up with current events you’ll know that our GOP leaders are working on a tax reform bill. What many people do not yet know, however, is that the current bill will do away with key features intended to help make higher education affordable. Including:
–Section 117(d), which exempts tuition waivers from being counted as taxable income
–Section 127, which exempts employer education assistance from being taxed
–The Lifetime Learning Tax Credit
–The Student Loan Interest Deduction
–Consolidation of the American Education Opportunity Credit to only be used for 4 + 1 years
I could write whole blog posts on every one of those points but for the sake of brevity let’s focus just on the first one, the tax exemption for tuition waivers.
Most grad students working in STEM fields (Science Technology Engineering and Math) fund their degree with teaching assistantships or research assistantships. In my case, I started with an RA because I had an NSF Fellowship and when that ended after three years, I transitioned to a quarter by quarter struggle to find a TA position. For my TA work, the university pays me at 50%, meaning I receive a salary based on 20 hours of work (despite the fact most TA’s work considerably more.) My annual stipend is $23,000, but it can vary anywhere from $15,000-35,000 depending on your source of funding and state. This money is intended to provide basic cost of living and for many students, especially those with dependents, it barely covers that. But we make due because there’s few other options, we love science, and we know that our work has a meaningful impact on our communities.
This stipend money, regardless of the source, is taxed. As it should be. But in addition to a small stipend these TA and RA positions include tuition waivers which are valued at anywhere from 12-50k a year. This waiver is basically the University paying itself for our tuition and under the current system it’s not considered income. The waiver is designed to offset the considerable costs of pursuing higher education in this country. And, because grad students aren’t just professionals in training, but are currently contributing to our universities (and communities at large) through our labor, research and publications, it seems reasonable that we shouldn’t be paying for work we do in their name.
Losing this tuition waiver would mean students like me would still be getting paid about $23,000 but taxed as if our salary was in the neighborhood of $60,000. In fact some grad students are poised to have the biggest tax hike of any demographic under this new plan. That’s not financially feasible for most people (including myself), especially those who have already accrued debt from their undergraduate education, or who come from low income families, or those supporting dependents. It would be a disaster for STEM.
Let me be clear: I’m not trying to paint the plight of grad students as the most important casualty of this bill. There are lots of reason to oppose it and we can’t all be fighting the same battle when are are so many different ones underway. But if you are reading this because you know and appreciate my research, popular articles, #CrowOrNo, blog, or even if you just care about STEM…that it continues to exist and attracts people of all financial means, then I need you to call or write to your legislators. They need to know that their non-grad student, tax paying constituents want to keep people like me in school. If you need any help navigating how to do this please use this resource: Action Alert! – Tax Reform.
I will be here to answer your crow questions from now until well after my run at grad school ends. But this time I need you to return the favor. Please contact your legislators.