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University Graduate Students Walk Out To Protest Tax Plan That Hurts Them

Harvard graduate student Jack Nicoludis (right), who helped organize a campus protest on Wednesday, says the House tax bill would more than double his taxes. "This plan is going to be disastrous for higher ed," he says.
Chris Arnold
Harvard graduate student Jack Nicoludis (right), who helped organize a campus protest on Wednesday, says the House tax bill would more than double his taxes. "This plan is going to be disastrous for higher ed," he says.

Graduate students around the country walked out of their classes, office hours, and research labs to protest the House Republican tax plan Wednesday.

"This plan is going to be disastrous for higher ed," said Jack Nicoludis, a Harvard graduate student in chemistry, who helped organize a protest on the campus. He said the bill would more than double his taxes.

In exchange for teaching courses or teaming up with professors on research projects, universities don't charge many Ph.D. students tuition, and give them modest stipends. The House bill would end the tax break students get on the value of their tuition waivers.

"Graduate students already struggle to get by and this will just be another factor that dissuades people from getting Ph.D.s," Nicoludis said.

He said he saves money by living in an attic. "In the winter it's very cold, in the summer it's very hot. I just deal with that because I want to pursue a graduate degree here. I want to get a Ph.D. I want to contribute to the science that's done in our country, and to do that I need to save some money by living in an unfavorable housing situation with five roommates," Nicoludis said.

At the University of Maryland, students said they felt like the tax plan treats them like trash, and they wore garbage bags to a rally.

Nat Baldino, a third-year Ph.D. student at the university's Department of Women's Studies, has already had to take out student loans to pay for basics such as utilities and rent.

"There's a misconception that grad school and academia in general is this sort of lofty enterprise," Baldino said. "We already don't get paid a livable wage — and as someone who is a first-generation college student, I already came into graduate school with tens of thousands of dollars of debt from undergrad."

"If this bill were to pass ... I don't know how I would live," Baldino said.

Jonathan Brower, a seventh-year Ph.D. student at the University of Maryland's history department, said the university gives him $20,000 a year in exchange for working as a history instructor, a job that he says is extremely labor intensive.

On top of teaching, Brower is responsible for running conferences and writing his dissertation, and he receives a $20,000 tuition waiver.

The stipend doesn't exactly fund a lifestyle of luxury. Brower is paid biweekly, and he's often down to pennies before his direct deposit hits, despite living with his parents.

The plan would tax the value of students' free tuition — meaning students like Brower would have to pay taxes as if he made $40,000 a year.

And that's a massive difference to a group of people that make very little money.

Katie Brown and Yvonne Slosarski, both seventh-year communications Ph.D. students at the University of Maryland, say grad students are already extremely vulnerable.

"Our work, our education, our livelihood is all already combined into this one amalgamated thing that itself is very unstable," Slosarski said. "And there's just no promise we'll get employment after."

Brown said the bill would have long-term consequences. "Only rich people would be able to receive a graduate degree," she said. "When you limit the people that can create knowledge, what you get is bad knowledge. The potential devastation from this is immense."

About 145,000 grad students received a tuition reduction in 2011-12, the American Council on Education says.

None of the students we spoke to were optimistic about the plan. And neither are economists, who say the increased taxes would discourage Americans from seeking advanced degrees at a time when the country badly needs a better-educated workforce.

"Dollar for dollar, this might be the most misguided part of the plan," Kim Rueben, a senior fellow in the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, told NPR earlier this month.

"What you're doing is increasing the cost of going to graduate school ... and ignoring the fact that the government makes much more money if people have more education," she said.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR correspondent Chris Arnold is based in Boston. His reports are heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazines Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition. He joined NPR in 1996 and was based in San Francisco before moving to Boston in 2001.