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Yesterday, Chris discussed why the GOP tax bill moving through both houses of Congress threatens the future of graduate education in the United States, and provided us with real numbers to show how devastating this would be.

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.

My own graduate education at a different state university would have produced a tax bill that looked much the same. Grad students already pinch pennies and take out loans and work second/third jobs to get by, even though programs often state that work outside the terms of one’s assistantship is not allowed. Under this proposed configuration, many would simply drop out, throwing away years of work, while most potential students would not attend at all.

Why not just take out loans and push through, though? Chris noted that he would be left with $8,400 for “housing, food, health insurance, and other household expenses.” But there’s more to be paid for out of that paltry sum, and it’s these costs, often obscured from public view, that need to be recognized. They’re important not only for their implications for graduate students in this situation but also in responding to the general public perception that scholars don’t actually work very much.

One major cost that is shared by all scholars – graduate students, non-tenure track professors, tenure track professors, and scholars working outside the academy – is that of attending conferences. These professional gatherings are vital for presenting and workshopping new research, and show committee members and deans that you are “progressing” in your work even if you haven’t published it yet.

This year, I’ve gone to three conferences, which is a bit more than I usually do, but as I’m in that space between finishing my dissertation and publishing my book, they’re extra-important to show I’m doing things. Between the cost of transportation to and from (two flights, one five hour drive), ground transportation and related issues (airport parking, public transit, and cab fares), accommodations (two hotels, one college dorm stay), meals (one can only eat so many granola bars), and conference membership and registration fees ($100-$200 for each one), I’ve probably spent $4,000.

As a grad student I was eligible for some department funding, but not enough to cover even one of the conferences that involved flying. As a tenure track faculty member I’d be eligible for more, hopefully, though I’d also be making more money than as a grad student. Non tenure track faculty are not necessarily eligible for any reimbursement, and even if departments can scrape together some money for these faculty members – the ones who are often doing the lion’s share of the teaching in addition to their own research – they’re not being allocated those funds. Yet the only way these non tenure track faculty members can ever hope to find tenure track employment (so the argument goes) is to keep presenting and publishing.

For many scholars in the humanities, social sciences, and hard sciences, the more insidious cost is that of the research itself, without which there is no presenting or publishing. For historians, this specifically means the cost of traveling to and staying at archives, both domestic and international, and the cost of the technology necessary to do that work, both hardware and software.

Yes, there are grants and fellowships, both external and internal, and yes, it’s important to apply for them and get them. But they are often very competitive, and don’t cover the full costs. And yes, graduate students do get funding for their research, but they’re often competing against their peers for a pot of money that hasn’t been enlarged since the mid-90s. Whether you get enough money at the right moment in your grad career – which is mostly out of your control – can make or break your dissertation. As a result, grad students (and non tenure track faculty, who are generally ineligible for research money) pay out of pocket to do their research.

What this means is that the $16,000 stipend Chris talked about is framed as money for living but is always expected to be more than that. Essentially, many grad students get paid to teach and are expected to use that money both to live and to do research. If their research requires traveling, they have to squeeze it into the parts of the year that they’re not teaching – the parts of the year when they’re also not getting paid.

This is why grad students argue for advanced money rather than reimbursement, and why they can’t just shrug off a payroll snafu that delays the first paychecks of the semester into October. It’s why the last week of August is the most terrifying time of the year for a grad student, the point where you find out if all your careful budgeting is going to be undone by a delayed reimbursement or first paycheck or literally any unexpected expense. There were late Augusts where I had less than $100 to my name, and I know many friends who were regularly in far more dire straits.

As Ralph Wiggum would say: it’s funny, but not ha-ha funny.

Academia already demands graduate students perform their devotion to their education by making deep financial sacrifices, yet when those students finish their PhDs, they encounter an academic job market unwilling to recognize the value of that education by paying them a living wage. 

This is why the proposed taxation of graduate tuition – which grad students “receive” even when they’re completely finished with their coursework and are only working on the dissertation – would end graduate education as we know it. Were the proposed GOP tax bill to go through, it would so undercut the already-tenuous system of graduate education as to destroy it completely. Even if students could still “live” on the salary they earned (which is highly unlikely), they’d never be able to do what was required of them to earn their degree.

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