GOP House Tax Reform Bill Could Mean the End of the American Ph.D

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Anyone who’s ever considered pursuing a doctorate knows to keep their financial expectations low: the academic market is competitive, landing a job is tough, and starting salaries are often small. Doctoral students must be willing to scrape by on stipends and fellowships while they’re in school, often foregoing basic necessities while completing their research. Things aren’t easy for post-grads, and if the GOP House tax plan released earlier this month passes, they’re about to get much harder — threatening not only the livelihood of today’s American scholars, but the future of higher education itself.

The GOP bill, which would essentially overhaul the current United States tax code, proposes that tuition waivers — commonly granted to doctoral students in addition to a yearly stipend — be taxed as income. This means that a doctoral student making $20,000 per year researching at a university like UCI, where tuition waivers are valued at around $30,000, would be liable to pay taxes on more than double their “true” annual income.

For someone working long, strenuous hours and bringing in just $20,000 annually, a few thousand dollars in taxes makes a world of difference — for many, enough to consider abandoning post-grad altogether. Last week, the New York Times profiled an aspiring professor of medieval literature at Emory University whose tax bill would be over $7,000 higher as a result of the GOP tax plan — nearly a quarter of her meager salary. The average increase in taxes for doctoral students is an estimated $2,000 to $5,000 per year. This is a small inconvenience for students whose parents are wealthy and willing enough to help them through a decade of higher education, but for students supporting themselves, those few thousand dollars could make post-graduate studies impossible.

Universities like UCI, which prides itself on its accessibility and support for low-income students, could suffer the most from a tax plan like this. UCI’s pool of qualified graduate students could shrink, as those who can’t afford a degree will look for non-academic work elsewhere. Our undergraduate — more than half of whom are first-generation, and thousands more of whom receive some financial aid — won’t have scholars like themselves to look up to, and will believe that graduate school isn’t for them.

For a university like UCI — ranked “No. 1 university doing the most for the American dream” by the New York Times this year, this loss of opportunity is devastating. It perpetuates a cycle that will leave universities intellectually poorer as they lose socioeconomic diversity, and — if the federal budget is all the GOP cares about — it’ll leave America literally poorer for decades to come, as we lose the scientists, artists, researchers, doctors, writers and inventors who keep us competitive in a global economy.

Higher education is already inaccessible to millions of low-income Americans. By raising taxes for post-grads — effectively barring thousands of qualified people from academia due to their financial status — the Trump administration is harming not only today’s would-be doctoral students and researchers, but students in classrooms decades from now. By making post-grad education feasible only for independently wealthy students, the universities of tomorrow will be filled with predominantly upper-class professors who can’t empathize with their low-income, first-generation, or otherwise disadvantaged students. The GOP tax plan is sacrificing the future of American education for a bit of federal revenue. It’s not surprising, but it’s dangerous, and if passed, it could be the end of accessible post-secondary education for decades to come.

Megan Cole is a fourth-year literary journalism and English double major. She can be reached at coleme@uci.edu.

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