Here's Why The Republican Tax Plan Is a 'Slap in The Face' For PhD Students

And it just passed the House.

17 NOV 2017

Graduate students across the US have been freaking out about the GOP's tax overhaul - and for good reason. The plan, which includes a $1.5 trillion corporate tax cut, disproportionately increases the tax burden for Ph.D. students.


Most PhD programs in the US offer to pay for a student's tuition in exchange for a teaching appointment or research assistantship. This is generally referred to as qualified tuition, and it is tax exempt.

Under the GOP tax plan, however, the tax deduction for qualified tuition and related expenses has been abolished. This means if the bill passes, graduate students would have to report their university's fee waiver as income.

Vetri Velan, a first year PhD student and aspiring physicist at UC Berkeley, is particularly worried about how the tax overhaul will impact STEM students. In his working paper, titled "How Does the 'Tax Cuts and Jobs Act' Affect Ph.D. Students", Velan reports that the GOP plan could lead to a tax increase of more than 200 percent for graduate students.

"As a PhD student, I was alarmed by the results of the analysis I conducted around this tax plan," Velan told 314 Action, an organization that fights for science-based policy solutions.

"Students at public universities would see their taxes increase by as much as 60%, and students at private universities could see an increase by a factor of 2 to 4."


Other PhD students who have been crunching the numbers have uncovered similar findings. Tamar Oostrom, who is currently earning her PhD in economics at MIT, told NPR the bill would increase her tax by 300 or 400 percent.

"I think it's absolutely crazy," she said.

No small number of students will be affected by the reform. From 2011 to 2012 there were about 145,000 graduate students who received tuition reductions, according to the American Council on Education.

Plus, many graduate students are already paying taxes for university stipends that help cover additional costs. This means if the GOP tax reform succeeds, their overall 'income' will be pushed into a higher tax bracket. The resulting tax increase will be prohibitive for many students that wish to pursue further education.

"The pursuit of knowledge at the graduate level is not an easy endeavor to undertake, and this tax plan adds unnecessary barriers for students who are often already scraping by financially," said Velan.

Unfortunately, the bill is already well on its way to becoming law. On Thursday, the House passed the most sweeping tax overhaul in three decades.


For Shaugnessy Naughton, a former researcher and the founder of 314 Action, the move was discouraging to say the least. America's tax code is in many ways a reflection of what we value, Naughton argues, and this plan sends a clear message that the GOP does not value those who are pursuing higher education in the US.

"At a time when we see young people saddled with debt just to pay for an education, Congress is now financing a corporate tax cut on their shoulders," she said in a recent statement.

"Considering the sacrifice and effort that is required to successfully attain a PhD, this provision to make graduate school an even more expensive endeavor is nothing short of a slap in the face."

For Naughton, there is no excuse for such a measure: 

"Shame on the Congresspeople who voted for this bill, which will hurt the United States' ability to be a global leader of innovation and research."