Washington State University graduate students gathered Wednesday to mount some last-minute opposition to the Republican tax plan that’s barreling through Congress.
At a rally that drew some several dozen to the WSU Spokane Academic Center, students said the plan, which is headed to the Senate floor after passing the House earlier this month, would put advanced degrees further out of reach of middle-class families.
The students are primarily concerned about a provision in the House bill that would count graduate tuition assistance as taxable income. Most schools offer grad students free or steeply discounted tuition in exchange for teaching undergraduate courses, tutoring other students or working with faculty on research.
Students never see that money, however, and the notion of taxing it was almost unheard of until recently. Doing so would especially impact grad students at elite private schools, who pay more in tuition. Politico reported that tuition waivers at some schools exceed $40,000, meaning some students’ taxable income would more than triple under the House plan.
The tax bill would also deter many students from pursuing advanced degrees and conducting important research at public schools, said Shannon Kozlovich, a doctoral student in the pharmaceutical sciences program at WSU Spokane who organized Wednesday’s rally.
“It really targets Ph.D. students who are in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math) because we’re the ones who are most likely to be doing research and using tuition waivers,” said Kozlovich, who in her own work is examining a potential link between tobacco additives and cancer risks.
She noted WSU’s engineering and criminal justice departments are cutting graduate research stipends to meet universitywide spending targets. That, coupled with the increased tax burden, would have “a hugely detrimental effect on our student populations here.”
Phil Lazarus, the chairman of the pharmaceutical sciences program, called the House plan “counterproductive.”
“Students are going to stop going into the sciences if they have to pay taxes (on tuition waivers),” he said. “We already lose so many smart students who go into business or something because the sciences are too expensive.”
Lazarus also predicted the House plan would prompt many Americans to study abroad.
“I’m originally from Montreal. I’m Canadian,” he said. “And I know for a fact that a lot of Canadian universities are going to get more applicants from the U.S.”
In a short speech during Wednesday’s rally, state Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, said the attempt to tax tuition waivers is “not just an attack on students, but in this case it’s an attack on Spokane. This campus, and all of you, the students here, are so important to the success of our community, in terms of health care, in terms of economic development.”
The students also heard a statement from Lisa Brown, the former WSU Spokane chancellor and state majority leader who’s running as a Democrat against Republican Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers. Brown was traveling Wednesday and her statement was read aloud by her chief of staff, Erin Ross.
“At a time when colleges already are unaffordable for many American families, and student debt is a crushing burden,” she said, “the tax bill that just passed the House of Representatives, removing deductions for student loan interest and taxing graduate assistance, can only be described as adding insult to injury.”
The House passed its tax bill on Nov. 16 with 227 Republican votes, including one from McMorris Rodgers. The next day, she told The Spokesman-Review that while she supported the House plan overall, she didn’t support counting tuition waivers as taxable income.
Her press secretary, Jared Powell, said Wednesday the congresswoman “feels strongly” about the provision and remains hopeful it will be abandoned as the House and Senate merge their tax bills into one.
“We feel good about the likelihood of that happening,” he said.
But Powell could not say if the provision would be a deal-breaker when McMorris Rodgers casts her final vote on the unified bill.
“She’s not drawing red lines in the sand about what provisions will be included in the bill,” he said.
The tuition-waiver tax isn’t the only provision of the GOP tax platform that has rattled higher education. The House bill would also eliminate a deduction for student loans and tax-exempt bond options for private universities.
And both the House and Senate versions would tax endowments at private universities with at least 500 students and endowment assets of at least $250,000 per student. According to Politico, only 60 to 70 schools meet those criteria.
On Tuesday, Gonzaga President Thayne McCulloh sent an internal email to students, faculty and staff urging them to contact their legislators about the bill. Without explicitly stating his position on the bill – or the stance of the university – McCulloh linked to a statement from the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, which describes the bill as “madness.” McCulloh also noted several elements of the bill are “of concern to some.”
“I ask that you consider taking the time to make your voices heard, as this legislation has the potential to significantly impact our students and their families, and our institution as well,” he wrote.
In an emailed statement to The Spokesman-Review, he added, “I believe it is incumbent upon citizens to engage personally and actively in the democratic process.”
Correction: This story was changed on Nov. 30, 2017. A previous version incorrectly identified Jared Powell as the congresswoman’s deputy press secretary. He has been promoted to press secretary. A previous version also incorrectly stated that WSU’s criminal justice department is cutting graduate research stipends. The chairman of the department, Craig Hemmens, said no such cuts have been considered.