House tax bill harms path to economic opportunity for all

House tax bill harms path to economic opportunity for all
© Greg Nash

The U.S. system of graduate education has long been recognized as the best in the world, with rigorous research training opportunities in science, technology, engineering, math, social sciences and humanities fields that are allocated in through highly competitive processes. The research scientists who graduate from these programs enter not only academia, but also government and the private sector, where they lead in innovations that drive the global economy and contribute to research discoveries that improve the quality of life for all.

Why, at a time when competitiveness in the global economy is so crucial to the future economic and social well-being of our country, are House Republicans proposing to eliminate a key tax credit that is critical to functioning of our premier graduate education system? The current House bill proposes to eliminate nontaxable tuition waivers for graduate students who are engaged in training as teaching or research assistants. These roles are not merely work assignments, but rather critical learning opportunities that help to prepare students to take on the core work of their future careers. It is for this reason that universities waive tuition costs for graduate students, recognizing that they are simultaneously learning and contributing to research that advances their fields.

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The increased taxes that students would face over the long course of graduate programs, such as medical scientist training programs, would be substantial. Indeed, this policy change would drastically affect those who are most highly sought after in our own graduate training systems and by employers following graduation, or about 60 percent of those in the science, technology, engineering and math fields. It is not hard to see the irony of this proposed policy when the president is simultaneously pushing for immigration policy changes that would favor the most highly educated to ensure our future supply of research scientists and sustain our technological prowess.

Currently, graduate student research stipends, which are typically less than $30,000 per year and sometimes considerably less, provide them barely enough support to pay their rent, food and book bills, and not to mention caring for any dependent family members. This does not take into account their foregone earnings in the labor market, which given that they have already obtained bachelor’s and sometimes master’s degrees, frequently dwarf the stipend that they receive. Furthermore, many of these students go on to relatively low wage postdoctoral or low ladder public or private research positions immediately after completing their degrees that require further deferral of the economic returns to their educational investment.

Do House Republicans want these prized educational opportunities to be reserved only for students whose parents are able to afford to support their children through both their undergraduate and graduate educations, and possibly into their early careers as well? In fact, rather than going after an elite group with the elimination of this tax credit, they will be increasing inequalities in access to our most advanced educational opportunities and will inevitably diminish diversity in the science, technology, engineering and math fields and academia.

I can speak to this from personal experience. I was a free or reduced price lunch kid from 1st through 12th grades in rural Wisconsin. I received Pell grants and Stafford loans to help finance my undergraduate education, while also working two jobs to pay for my living expenses. My graduate education at the University of Chicago would never have been possible without the full tuition benefits and $10,000 living stipend I received. I made ends meet by living in a basement apartment that was literally crawling with bugs, and my first academic job paid less than the postdoctoral research position I had after first completing my degree, but the long-term benefits have been well worth the early sacrifices.

Let’s not make these kinds of choices impossible for future generations, particularly those who may have to embark on this long climb on their own, without financial backing from family or friends. We also can’t forget that the qualified tuition provision extends in many universities to any university employee, where the waived or reduced tuition doesn’t count toward taxable income and can facilitate progression to the next degree level and new career opportunities.

In a society pulling apart in terms of social and income inequalities, do House Republicans really want to cut off a crucial rung on the ladder to economic and career advancement for those willing to sacrifice in making these long-term investments? They would be more than undermining our outstanding graduate education system, but denigrating a pathway toward greater economic opportunity for all.

Carolyn J. Heinrich, Ph.D., is the Patricia and Rodes Hart professor of public policy, education and economics at Vanderbilt University.