The House tax bill would decimate graduate education
The House of Representatives has passed a tax bill which would devastate higher education in the U.S., making all graduate education unattainable for a large sector of our best and brightest students. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act includes a repeal of Section 117(d)(5) of the current tax code, a provision that enabled me to affordably obtain a Ph.D in chemistry. This provision kept the tuition scholarship that I received tax-free.
Under the House's tax bill (the Senate is preparing to vote on its own version), this tax waiver would be cut, and today's graduate students would see huge increases in their tax bill – making advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering and math financially impossible for all but the wealthy. I'm living the American dream in part because of access to affordable graduate education. That dream should not be taken away from the next generation.
While I could state a variety of statistics about the impact of this legislation, the reader will soon forget that. Instead, I want to make this personal. This is about my students. And this is about all of our children.
I am the child of blue-collar working-class parents. My father worked in stone quarries and the coal mines of western Pennsylvania. My mother had various jobs, from short-order cook to housecleaner. They scrimped and saved – and took out a second mortgage on their home – to put me and my older sister through college. If it weren't for their sacrifices, we'd have never received the four-year degrees we did. We also took out our own loans and received grants and scholarships, and worked ourselves, to make it through college. Just this May, I paid off the last of my student loans from my undergraduate degree. My education was expensive, but it was important, and a crucial stepping stone to where I am today.
After earning my bachelor's degree in 1998, I decided to pursue a Ph.D. I sacrificed the financial security of full-time employment to pursue an advanced degree. I received a modest stipend (under $20,000 per year) in exchange for my work as either a teaching or research assistant – and more importantly, a scholarship that meant I did not pay tuition for the courses I needed to advance my knowledge in chemistry. This scholarship was tax free.
I finished my Ph.D in four and a half years years, graduating in 2002 from a top chemistry Ph.D program. Over the next 15 years, I rose through the ranks of assistant, associate and full professor, and now serve as associate vice provost for research at Villanova University. I maintain an active research group of my own, employing graduate students in my lab. These are some of the smartest and hardest working students I know, and it breaks my heart to know that a seemingly small change to the tax code will have such devastating implications for their education and risk of future debt.
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It is already difficult for students to make ends meet. I've done the calculations for our students, and this change to the tax code would effectively reduce their annual stipend by one to two months' worth of paychecks.
If a similar change to the tax code had been enacted when I was in graduate school, I would have been forced to drop out and seek other employment to make financial ends meet. Would I be gainfully employed today? Probably, yes. Would I have an advanced degree? No. Would I be a leader in my field, tackling important research questions in environmental chemistry? No. Would I have been able to become a professor and teach a new generation of STEM scholars and high achievers? No.
Let me be crystal clear: This change to the tax code will decimate U.S. graduate education and could make U.S. progress in STEM fields in particular grind to a halt. Graduate students help drive the engine of research and innovation in the U.S. This provision is not a meaningful, nor significant way to tackle the behemoth that is our tax code. It is not a way to maintain U.S. competitiveness in science and technology. It is, however, a highly effective method to reduce access of passionate, hard-working and high-achieving – but economically disadvantaged –students to U.S. higher education pathways to success. These students are our future and we need to invest in them.
I urge Congress to work toward a tax plan that does not decimate U.S. higher education and our STEM workforce. The Senate tax plan does not include this provision – so there remains a chance for bipartisan negotiation among our lawmakers. I encourage you to contact your representatives regarding this matter.
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