The new tax plan from the Republican Party threatens to seriously damage or even destroy graduate education in the United States. Recognizing that individuals take on a financial burden by pursuing higher education rather than enter the job market, universities grant tuition waivers to graduate students who work as research or teaching assistants or have some other type of university funding. The tuition waivers are essentially money that the university pays to itself. The policy stems from the idea of graduate education as an apprenticeship. Students accept low pay in exchange for learning the valuable skills. Universities recognize the students’ sacrifice by easing the financial burden as much as possible. Since graduate students do not actually receive any of that tuition money, they do not pay taxes on it. Under the GOP tax plan, however, those tuition waivers would count as income and be subject to taxation. This week, I wanted to lay out why this plan would be so devastating to higher education and how funding in grad school works.
Using myself as an example, I’m going to do some back of the envelope calculations to highlight the potential damage that this GOP bill could do. I made about $16,000 a year as a teaching assistant at the University of Delaware. I also received a tuition waiver worth about $26,550. Since I only earned $16,000 that’s what I was taxed on, amounting to about $1,768. Under the GOP plan, I would be taxed on my income and the tuition waiver, totaling $42,550. As a result, my tax bill would rise to $7,581. I would go from paying about 11% of my income in taxes to paying 47%. Leaving me approximately $8,400 (not counting the hundreds or even thousands of dollars that gets paid back to the university in the form of fees) to pay for housing, food, health insurance, and other household expenses.
The GOP tax plan would make grad school unaffordable for any grad student who wasn’t independently wealthy or willing to take out thousands of dollars in loans (undoubtedly on the top of the student loans from their undergraduate education). Those lucky enough to finish their PhDs would be entering a job market where unstable adjunct labor has largely replaced tenure. By making graduate education prohibitively expensive, this plan would also disproportionately harm students from poorer backgrounds and place a greater financial burden on groups who have been traditionally underrepresented in the academy (LGBTQI+, women, African-Americans, and other racial minorities). The GOP tax plan, in its current form, would require universities to find different ways to fund their grad students or see graduate education in this country irrevocably damaged.
So let’s now turn to the question of how graduate students in this country earn their money. There are different types of funding including research assistantships, teaching assistantships, graduate instructing, and scholarships. RAs assist their advisers or other university personnel in conducting on-going research projects. This type of funding is especially common in the STEM fields where professors have research laboratories that further their own interests as well as those of their students. RA-ships can also run the full year, partially explaining why graduate students in the sciences earn more than their counterparts in the humanities whose contracts often only run for nine months. These laboratories also derive a significant amount of their funding from outside sources like grants from private corporations and the Federal government. These grants provide a stable source of funding that allow for the development of multi-year projects.
Teaching assistantships, especially in the humanities, are the other major source of funding for graduate students. During each semester, students serve as teaching assistants working under the supervision of a professor—generally a tenured one, but occasionally under adjunct professors as well. There are two types of TAs, those in lecture based classes and those in discussion based ones. Lecture based TAs have the easier time of the two. They generally only have to attend class, hold a few office hours a week, and grade the majority of assignments that students submit (a couple of exams and a paper). TAs who work in discussion based classes have a much heavier workload. They attend lectures, hold office hours, grade assignments, and meet with the professor each week to learn what the professor would like for the students to get out of each week’s readings. Then they design lesson plans and lead four discussion sections of approximately twenty students each.
A few lucky students may be awarded scholarships that award them the pay equivalent to a TA-ship or RA-ship, but without any work requirements. These scholarships are supposedly awarded based on merit and future potential. Like most of the inner workings of academia, who knows how it actually works. The final way that graduate students earn an income is through teaching their own courses. Once graduate students are sufficiently along in their careers, they can teach courses of their own. They can either be paid equivalent to their TA pay or based on an adjunct rate per course. Teaching well requires an enormous investment in time and effort that would otherwise go to the work necessary to completing the PhD.
Rather than destroy graduate education in this country, the GOP should just follow the lessons of the Simpsons and leave grad students alone.