Increased financial burden for students will harm science in the long run, says Aliyah Weinstein.
A recent editorial in Nature described the harm that newly proposed changes to the United States tax code will have on graduate student finances. If passed, these regulations — ostensibly designed to simplify tax calculations — will eliminate benefits previously given to students. Of particular harm to graduate students and the scientific world would be the elimination of the tax-free status of tuition waivers.
Tuition waivers allow many PhD candidates to pursue their degrees without the financial burden of paying tuition, which is instead a cost absorbed by the university. Current estimates suggest that at least 145,000 students will be affected by the new tax proposition, based on data from 2012. This means 145,000 individuals struggling to plan for their futures and contribute to the economy because of the thousands of extra dollars they will owe the government each year.
I am one of those 145,000; my yearly tuition waiver of nearly $45,000 per year is not money that I account for or choose what to do with. Yet it is this tuition waiver that allows me to work towards my PhD, devote all of my time towards my thesis project, and live comfortably off of the additional stipend provided to me without taking out loans or working an outside job.
Universities in the United States often charge higher tuition for “out-of-state” students who relocate from either another state or another country to attend school. As an out-of-state student at the University of Pittsburgh, the proposed additional taxation would cause my tax liability to increase by over $6,500, to a total of more than four times what I am currently paying. This would effectively cut my disposable income for the year in half. A student in my program under in-state tuition could anticipate their taxes approximately doubling.
While I’m lucky enough to be able to absorb this additional cost in the short term and still be able to afford rent and groceries, that’s about all my new budget would allow for – not traveling, not weekends, not home improvement. For other students, the immediate impacts would be more severe, affecting their ability to afford housing, childcare, or medical expenses. And the stipends that graduate students receive to subsidize their living costs vary widely between fields and institutions. Between a quarter and a third of doctoral candidates have their tuition costs covered by a tuition waiver; many graduate students are already reporting that if the new tax code becomes law, they will not be able to return to their programs next year.
The changes would have more severe impacts on my future career prospects: I am planning to move to another state after graduating, and the increase in my taxes will be in lieu of saving for the costs of that move, limiting the offers I would be able to take or the distance I could move. On a broader scale, this should be a major concern for scientists across academia and industry. The over 35,000 new STEM PhDs who graduate each year in the United States are qualified for employment in myriad sectors, including education, sales, consulting, law, communications, and academic and non-academic research.
The changes in the tax code will cut the size of this labor force. This should be of concern to those who rely on PhD-trained scientists for specific tasks within their organization. Historically, the availability of STEM jobs has grown more rapidly than jobs in other fields. This is the time to encourage more students to pursue higher education in STEM fields by giving them more, not less, support throughout the training process.
Congress believes they can pass this bill before their term breaks in mid-December; this would poise the new legislation to go into effect at the beginning of 2018, providing very little time for anyone to fully understand the changes — let alone plan ways to mitigate them. Now is the time – and possibly the only time there is left – for students, universities, and the STEM industry at large to push back against ending the tax-free status of tuition waivers for graduate students.
Aliyah Weinstein is a PhD candidate in immunology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, where her research focuses on the initiation of anti-tumor immune responses. Outside of the lab, she is involved with the university administration and student government, and volunteers with the national nonprofit organization Letters to a Pre-Scientist. You can find Aliyah on LinkedIn, Twitter, and on her blog.