If the engines of research at UC Davis are audible, you will hear some parts of our university sputter from a robust roar to a feeble purr on Wednesday.
The slowdown is to begin at 10 a.m. when dozens of our graduate students – many of them research assistants – walk out of their classrooms, offices and laboratories to rally in the quad to protest the tax bill that recently breezed through the U.S. House. Thousands of fellow students across the country will join the “Grad Tax Walkout” in a show of solidarity against the repeal of several tax exemptions and deductions that make college affordable for millions of Americans.
I wholeheartedly support their protest. The House bill is an attack on higher education in the name of reform.
The harshest assault is its repeal of tax-free tuition waivers, which are vital to students who pursue master’s degrees or doctorates and are not affluent. These graduate students work 40 or more hours a week as teaching assistants, research assistants and tutors in exchange for waiving their tuition and fees. More than 40 percent of the 23,000 UC graduate students have received these waivers. At UC Davis, the waiver saves California residents $13,607 a year in tuition and non-residents $28,710. The waiver doesn’t help students with their estimated $23,000 in expenses for health insurance, transportation, books and supplies.
The House tax plan would treat students’ unpaid tuition as taxable income, resulting in a tax burden that many could not cover with their earnings from working as teaching or research assistants. Graduate school would suddenly become unaffordable for thousands of students, forcing many to drop out or take on more loans.
Compounding the burden, the House tax bill would also end the $2,500 deduction for student loan interest. The average debt of a UC Davis medical school graduate is $156,808, which means an interest of $5,770 a year. Eliminating the deduction would make it costlier and more difficult for young people to enter professions, whether it’s health care, law, teaching, the arts, business, engineering or science.
Why would we do this? Graduate students are the engines of research and innovation, the workhorses who gather and analyze data. Their assistance in teaching undergraduates and grading their papers frees up professors to conduct research, and research is the engine of economic development.
Graduate education should be encouraged because lifetime earnings increase with advanced degrees, which boosts tax revenue. Raising taxes on graduate students in the name of reform is like reducing weight on an airplane by throwing out the passengers.
While the Senate tax bill thankfully does not include the tuition waiver and interest deduction proposals, it is problematic for higher education because it could reduce charitable giving, a major revenue source for universities. More than ever, philanthropy plays a critical role in keeping public higher education affordable.
If the goal of this legislation is to reduce Americans’ tax burden, then it is falling far short and leaving our students out in the cold. It would make college less affordable and prevent more people from obtaining the knowledge, skills and experience needed to compete in a rapidly changing economic landscape.
Let’s instead protect and champion our engines of research – and keep them revved up so America can stay strong.
Gary S. May is chancellor of UC Davis. He can be contacted at Chancellor@ucdavis.edu.