By Mary Ellen Flannery
If you’re a young American who dreams of becoming a teacher, or pharmacist, or maybe even the scientist who charts our course to Mars, the GOP tax plan may put an axe to your aspirations. With Congress’ approval, those degrees would be further out of reach for working families.
“I can’t believe the way they want to change lives today!” says Krystal Williams, president of the Graduate Student Association at Florida A&M University (FAMU), a chapter of the NEA-affiliated United Faculty of Florida.
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The GOP plan, if it passes, would tax graduate students on the value of their tuition remissions, the grants that are commonly provided by institutions to graduate students like Williams, who is a Ph.D. student in FAMU’s College of Pharmacy, whose research focuses on treatments for HIV and AIDS among African-American women.
But that’s not the only way the tax overhaul would harm higher education in the U.S. It also would eliminate the federal tax deduction on student loan interest, making it harder for Americans to pay for college. And it would eliminate the state and local tax deduction, making it more difficult for state lawmakers to fund public colleges and universities. The resulting revenues would pay for the GOP’s tax cuts to corporations and the wealthiest of Americans.
Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives approved the plan—over the objections of tens of thousands of NEA members, students, and parents, and without a single hearing on it. The U.S. Senate has not yet voted.
“Hypocrisy is at the heart of the tax plan approved today by the U.S. House of Representatives,” NEA President Lily Eskelsen García said last week. “Repeatedly, their plan takes from working families to pay for massive giveaways to corporations and the wealthy.”
Who could afford this?
At Penn State University, Brianne Pragg’s friends and colleagues are among those working families. Pragg is chief organizer of the Coalition for Graduate Employees (CGE), a group that recently asked the state labor relations board to certify their affiliation with the Pennsylvania State Education Association so that about 3,700 Penn State grad employees can bargain collectively for a living wage and more affordable healthcare.
According to Penn State’s calculations, the GOP tax plan would amount to a 10 percent pay cut for Pragg and her colleagues, who account for 45 percent of Penn State’s instructional workforce. Basically, their annual federal tax bill would increase from $1,092, on average, to $3,182. This is an awful lot of money, Pragg notes, when the average annual salary for a Penn State grad assistant is just about $20,800.
At private universities, where the value of tuition remissions is much higher, the tax plan would amount to a 30 to 40 percent pay cut.
The new tax burden would force many of Pragg’s newest colleagues to drop out, they’ve said. Her peers who are closer to earning their Ph.D.’s are more likely to “stick it out, but they’ll probably have to take out loans to pay their federal taxes, which will just increase student debt,” she says. “It certainly will decrease the number of applicants to graduate programs, especially among first-generation student and minorities. It would be impossible for anybody who isn’t from a rich family to go to grad school.”
These effects have broader implications for our future classrooms, or engineering labs, or pharmacies, and for the nation’s ability to compete in a global economy. “Devastating for higher education,” says the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students (NAGPS), which has launched an all-out effort to #ReworktheReform.
U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis (R-IL) voted for the House bill, and applauds many of its aspects, but Davis also is concerned about “the impending student debt crisis” and the ability of middle-class Americans to access higher education. Last week, Davis wrote a letter to the chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady, asking him to retain the exclusion for tuition remissions, pointing that seven out of 10 Americans graduate with student debt and that this debt often holds them back from “buying a house, purchasing a car, or saving for retirement,” and otherwise contributing to the national economy.