Tax reform could have a chilling effect on university graduate students

Graduate students may see big increases in their income taxes, and research universities say the tax reform plan could change the centuries old system of higher education.

The tax reform plan passed by the U.S. House of Representatives last week could change the way university graduate schools do business, and that could have major effects on how we recruit and train our education's leaders.

The tax code overhaul calls for taxing tuition waivers. That means graduate students would have to pay taxes on the "deals" they get in exchange for the degrees they earn. Many graduate students teach classes, and do research as part of their degree work.

Ryan Scheel, a PhD. candidate in chemistry at SUNY ESF, and also president of the SUNY ESF Graduate Student Association, says the change would double or triple the amount of taxable income for most graduate students, and would at least double the amount paid in income taxes.

Professor Scott Shannon, the dean of the Graduate School at SUNY ESF, says the reform will have a "strong chilling effect on anyone really considering going to graduate school." And that, he says, will change the whole system of higher education.

It could lead to shortages of college-level educators in the future, and it could also mean major setbacks in research in science, medicine and industry, which is done increasingly by universities, rather than business.

Professor Shannon says the hardest hit will be the humanities and social sciences, which are critically important to our culture. Scheel says STEM (Science, Technology Engineering, Math) fields are the largest areas of the tuition waivers, and that classes in these areas really need graduate students to teach the basic classes. He feels these areas will be hurt the most.

Both men agree that the tax reform does not say good things about higher education's future. The hope is that the tuition waver tax will be dropped when tax reform comes to congressional compromise. But graduate student groups and education lobbies are gearing up for a fight, just in case.