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Graduate students at USC, UCLA, Caltech join national protest against GOP bill they say will significantly hike their taxes

 (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Graduate students at USC, UCLA and Caltech plan to join national protests Wednesday against the House Republican tax bill passed this month, which analysts say makes changes that would significantly boost the taxes of many of the nation’s young researchers.

USC student Hannah Khoddam and a handful of classmates began organizing a walkout this month, then joined forces with students from a group of six East Coast colleges to sponsor a national “day of action” expected to draw thousands of participants at about 50 campuses in 32 states. 

The House tax bill slashes $65 billion in tax benefits for higher education over 10 years, according to Steven Bloom, the American Council on Education’s director of government relations. Graduate students would be hit hard by a repeal of a decades-old provision that shields from taxation their tuition — which is waived by universities in exchange for their work as teaching assistants and researchers.

Bloom said the provision benefited 145,000 graduate students in 2011-12, the most recent data available. About 60% were students studying science, technology, engineering and math — providing critical knowledge and skills, he said, needed to drive the nation’s economy.

“Why would you repeal a provision that is an essential way we help make graduate education affordable and accessible?” Bloom said. “It makes no sense as a matter of good public policy.” 

A UC Berkeley analysis found that taxes would rise by 61%, or about $1,400, for a campus teaching assistant, and 31%, or about $1,100, for a research assistant if the university’s $13,793 annual tuition benefit became taxable. At MIT, a private institution that charges about $49,600 in annual tuition, taxes would more than triple to $13,577, said the analyst, Vetri Velan, a PhD student in physics. 

Velan and fellow student Kathy Shield created a calculator for students to figure out how the change, if it became law, would affect their own taxes. 

Overall, the University of California says, 23,000 graduate students earned $250 million in tuition benefits in 2015-16. Students from all nine of the system’s undergraduate campuses plan to join the protest.

“Tax reform should not be borne on the backs of our hardworking graduate students,” said UC President Janet Napolitano in a statement this week with Student Regent Paul Monge and Student Regent-designate Devon Graves. “They are vital to the university community and society at large: They further groundbreaking research, mentor the next generation and contribute to the economy. They are our nation’s future and deserve congressional support — not a tax hike.”

At USC, the House bill could triple or quadruple taxes for 3,100 PhD students, said Provost Michael W. Quick. “In the long run, such legislation could dissuade some of our leading innovators and creative talent from pursuing graduate careers,” he said in a statement.

One of the organizers of the national walkout is Miriam Rubenson, a USC doctoral student in clinical psychology who is studying ways to help youth offenders with mental health problems. She is married to a UC San Diego student in a joint MD-PhD program who is researching gene therapies to cure HIV. They each earn about $30,000 in stipends, which are taxable. But under the House bill, they would have to pay taxes for the first time on the value of their tuition waivers, which they expect to rise to $90,000 next year — socking them with a $20,000 tax bill. 

“This kind of taxation is meant for luxury items,” Rubenson said. “To tax graduate education as if it’s a golf club membership is absurd.”

Khoddam and others said the specter of enormous tax bills has prompted some students to consider dropping out or taking on even more burdensome loans. But the House bill repeals the deduction for interest on student loans, which 12 million taxpayers claimed in 2015. 

The bill also eliminates the tax deduction for “lifelong learning” programs — skills training for adults, for instance — and for employer tuition assistance to workers. 

The Senate has yet to pass its tax bill. Once it does, the differences between the two bills will need to be resolved. The Senate bill does not contain the changes the students are protesting.

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