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Graduate Students on the Front Lines Fighting the Republican Tax Scam

Graduate Students tend to be a stoic, nihilistic bunch but now they're organizing.

Graduate Students tend to be a stoic, nihilistic bunch. Their labor is exploited and they know it, and they generally accept their indentured servitude as just one part of the larger hazing process that is academia. Yet in the past weeks grad students at universities all over the country have been up in arms, staging a walkout at over 40 universities on November 29th. Then a sit-in at House Speaker Paul Ryan’s office on December 5th at which eight were arrested, including USC Rossier of Education’s Tom DePaola — who flew 3,000 miles to be arrested.

Most details of the Republicans’ craven giveaway to corporations and the wealthiest Americans are well known, but several comically-unnecessary provisions target graduate students specifically. To explain the devastating effects of these tax changes, first a quick overview of how graduate education works in the US.

As a PhD student, you pay no tuition. Your healthcare benefits are covered free of charge. You even receive a small stipend on which to live, in exchange for teaching undergraduate classes while pursuing your own coursework and research. My experience as a PhD student in the English Department at the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences is fairly typical of post-secondary work in the humanities. I taught one class per semester, except for the two years that I had fellowships and did not teach at all, and for the seven years I was a student I received a stipend around $19,000 paid over nine-month terms. If anything, this is more generous than most. I know of other programs where grad students are teaching two or even three classes a semester, and paid $10,000 or less per year. The average time to complete a PhD remains stubbornly close to nine years.

Getting paid to go to school sounds great, but you can already see the problems. My stipend over nine months came to roughly $2,100 per month, with $0 coming in over the summer months. Rent immediately ate over half my paycheck. During the summers I lived on credit cards. Conference travel and other professional development expected of PhD students came out of my own pocket. Even though tuition was covered by the university I still took out student loans to cover basic living expenses. I had some savings from the five or six years that I worked between my bachelor’s and doctoral degrees, and I had some financial help from family.

As it stands already the Ivory Tower gates are closed to all but the few privileged enough to support themselves like this, with loans and with prior savings and all the while living the cliché of packaged ramen for lunch and dinner. To say nothing of giving up nearly a decade of significantly higher wages.

So how would the GOP tax atrocity change things? First, and affecting not just graduate students but every student in the country, student loan interest would no longer be tax deductible. That amounts to an average increase of $200 in yearly taxes for the 12 million Americans who claim student loan interest deductions.

Second, the GOP would categorize graduate school tuition as taxable income, which, according to Forbes, “will destroy graduate education.” When I was at USC, the university technically charged me their going rate of roughly $60,000 a year. It appeared as a bill that was then immediately paid back as part of my overall funding package (charging it in the first place allows USC to show a deduction on their books). Back then I paid income taxes on only the $19,000 stipend that was designated for teaching, but under the new plan I would have paid income taxes on the full $80,000, increasing my tax rate from 15% to 25% and effectively crippling my ability to live.

This makes perfect sense when placed in the context of the larger right-wing assault on higher education, particularly higher education in the Liberal Arts. Humanities PhDs are already unaffordable for all but the few privileged enough to support themselves, and further only those stupid enough to believe a stable tenure-track job and middle-class life await them at the end — in actuality, 75% of college professors are adjuncts and 25% are on food stamps. Under the proposed changes, virtually no one will be able to afford graduate school. Classes once taught by graduate students will be taught by ever more adjuncts which, because they aren’t eligible for health benefits, are actually cheaper for universities.

An educated population is difficult to control. A population trained in critical thinking —the stated purpose of the Liberal Arts — is dangerous to the status quo. And the GOP is working on every level to destroy humanities education and purge the “tenured radicals,” to punish students with precarity and debt, to ensure a disciplined and compliant and expendable labor force.