Pittsburgh Grad Students Say GOP House Plan Would Create Huge New Tax Burdens

Nov 29, 2017

About two dozen graduate students chanted "kill the bill" outside the Cathedral of Learning on Wednesday. Many teach undergraduate classes or assist with research in exchange for waived tuition or a stipend. 

The demonstration was part of a national day of action in which students walked out of their classes and research labs in protest of a provision of the GOP tax plan that would classify their tuition waivers as taxable income.

Students in Pittsburgh said the measure would exponentially increase their tax liability.

Golnar Touski, a second-year doctoral candidate studying the history of art and architecture at the University of Pittsburgh, said if the plan goes through, she will have to leave the country. Touski, 36, of Iran said she's been looking into continuing her studies at a European school.

“I really see no future for myself here. I cannot continue my program under (those) conditions,” she said. “I have already spent five, this is six, years of my life studying in the United States. This, for me, means that I just have to forego all of that.”

Touski works with her advisor, who is publishing a book on the history of contemporary art, and contributes to portions of the work covering the Middle East. She said she's paid around $21,000 annually before taxes, but because she is an international student paying out of state tuition and taxes, she would end up netting less than $12,000 a year.

“That doesn’t even pay my rent,” she said.

Touski, like many graduate students, said she has already made substantial sacrifices for her education, foregoing leisure and travel. She said she fears the tax plan would make higher education unaffordable for most people, especially international students.

University of Pittsburgh spokesman Joe Miksch said the school shares concerns voiced by students. 

"Some provisions of the proposed tax bill would result in very substantial tax increases for graduate students, and increasing the tax burden on those receiving an education would be harmful to them and would undercut progress and innovation for all," he said in an email. 

Brennan Chambre, 26, spoke at the rally Wednesday. He’s slated to finish his master’s degree in creative writing this spring and teaches an undergraduate creative writing class making about $1,900 a month. He said he spends about half of that on rent.

At this point in his education, he said it isn’t a given that he could finish his degree if the House tax plan were put into effect.

“I would probably look into how much could I afford for a student loan. My credit isn’t even good, so could I even get one?” he said.

Other students agreed they, too, might have to take out loans to pay their taxes.

Carnegie Mellon University graduate assistants sounded the alarm on the issue earlier this month. Students called legislators asking them to vote against the bill.

“We are asking the senators to also voice opposition to these provisions in the House bill on the Senate floor,” said Surya Aggarwal, a CMU graduate student and vice president for external affairs for CMU’s Graduate Student Assembly.

The Senate’s tax plan does not call for tuition to be taxable income.

Stipends at CMU vary by college. A student working at Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Science now makes about $19,036 after taxes. If tuition were counted as income, with deductions the student would make $12,949 after taxes, according to an analysis by CMU students.

Similar documents are circulating in other colleges, including the University of California Berkeley.

CMU interim president Farnam Jahanian said in a letter to the university community earlier this month that any provision that makes higher education more costly would "undermine the mission of higher education and CMU."

"The education we provide undergraduates and graduate students is one of the most powerful engines for their future success and ability to contribute to society," he said. "More broadly, the long-term health of government and industry depends on our graduates. And the breakthroughs born of our research hold the key to the nation’s economic future. We take that responsibility very seriously and will continue to advocate for policies that support this mission."