House GOP tax bill could hurt graduate students

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Photo Credit: Aaliyah Jenkins | Daily Texan Staff

Under the U.S. House GOP tax bill, income taxes for graduate students could double or triple, potentially putting master’s and Ph.D educations out of reach.

The bill, known as the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, passed the House Thursday 227-205 with no Democrat votes and 13 Republicans voting against it.

“This is nothing short of extraordinary,” House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, said after the bill passed, according to the Wall Street Journal. “This country has not rewritten its tax code since 1986 … 227 men and women of this Congress broke through that today.”

However, many in higher education have railed against the bill because it removes three tax exemptions that substantially reduce the cost of graduate education. For some, these exemptions are what make the burden of sometimes a decade or more of student loans possible.

“I (am) pretty upset because graduate students are not a particularly large segment of the population, and we’re already in a significant amount of debt thanks to undergraduate loans,” said Samantha Fuchs, Graduate Student Assembly legislative affairs director and civil engineering graduate student. “Increasing taxes on us to pay for other tax cuts and exemptions seems unbalanced and even unfair.”

The first change made by the bill removes tuition waivers, which are commonly used by Universities to compensate graduate students for teaching or conducting research, from their tax-exempt status. Thus, graduate students would be paying taxes on income that they didn’t actually receive, and they would have to pay those taxes using some other source of income.

The tax plan also repeals a tax incentive that lets employers assist their employees in paying for higher education. Right now, employers can give their employees up to $5,250 to pay for higher education tax-free.

Fuchs called the tax bill an attack on higher education and said cutting the employee assistance incentive seems counterintuitive to the other parts of the bill, which is slashing corporate taxes.

“Getting rid of that assistance … makes it harder for corporations to justify that expense,” Fuchs said. “So if they’re saying that they are trying to give corporations an advantage, it seems like having a well-educated workforce would be a component of that.”

Student Loan Interest Deduction, a tax exemption used by undergraduate and graduate students alike, would also be removed from the tax code, erasing a $2,500 tax savings for many.

With the loss of these tax incentives, astronomy graduate student Benny Tsang said the bill would likely cause a dramatic downturn in the number of students pursuing master’s and doctoral degrees.

“In order, to make higher education and research accessible for more students, this cannot be passed,” Tsang said. “Otherwise, students will consider quitting programs right now or they won’t even consider going into research in the first place. So it will hurt science. It will hurt research in the United States.

Astronomy and physics junior Emily Strickland said she is already paying for her undergraduate education on her own and cannot afford to take out any more loans when she reaches graduate school. If the bill passes, Strickland said she will likely go overseas to finish her education.

“I don’t know if I’ll be able to afford (graduate school), but I’m going to try,” Strickland said. “At a certain point, all you can do is plan for the worst, hope for the best.”