Graduate Students Escaped Tax Increases, but They Still Feel a Target on Their Backs

"Samantha Hernandez was finishing up an argument for her dissertation about Latinos and affirmative action on Thursday when the emails started pouring in with the subject line 'Congratulations,'" The New York Times reports. "President Trump had finished a celebratory news conference to announce the completion of a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s tax code, and graduates students were breathing a deep sigh of relief. House Republicans had targeted them for a hefty tax increase, one that many of them could not hope to pay, but they had escaped unscathed. The question now is this: Once lawmakers put a target on your back, are you ever really in the clear?"

"'I’m relieved,' said Ms. Hernandez, the legislative director for the 600,000-member National Association of Graduate-Professional Students and is to graduate from Arizona State University with a doctorate in political science in the spring. 'But we’re not done. This is not over.'

For the last month, Ms. Hernandez and fellow graduate students had led a nationwide effort to defeat a proposal from House Republicans that would have saddled hundreds of thousands of them with unexpected tax bills by declaring the value of their waived tuition fees as taxable income. A month of phone-banking, Twitter posts and personal lobbying — she worked on her dissertation from the cafeteria of the Longworth House Office Building between meetings on Capitol Hill — had paid off.

But the tuition tax proposal is just one in a growing list of graduate school benefits that House Republicans have in their legislative sights. Next up is an extensive rewrite of the law governing the nation’s higher education system, and again, Republicans hope to drastically curtail or end revenue streams that graduate students rely on to pursue advanced degrees.

'I think there’s a general assault on higher education right now,' said Justin Draeger, the president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. 'I think it’s tied into a dangerous narrative in our country about elitism. It undervalues our most important resource, which is our inventiveness, our ingenuity, our ability to solve big problems. A lot of that work happens at graduate-level education.'

Others say that such scrutiny is warranted and long overdue. Conservatives contend that the measures are good for taxpayers and could result in colleges and universities lowering their prices.

'Big subsidies for people with advanced degrees should come under scrutiny when you have a populist streak,' said Jason D. Delisle, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. 'By definition, everybody going to graduate school already has a college degree. The reality is, we’re worried about whether we’re helping undergraduates enough, and meanwhile, graduate students have amassed these big subsidies.'"

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Publication Date: 12/20/2017

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