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Hundreds of grad students at USC, UCLA, Caltech join national protests against GOP tax bill, saying it will devastate research

USC graduate students, from left, Mariel Bello, Nina Christie and Alyssa Morris pose for a selfie to post. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
USC graduate students, from left, Mariel Bello, Nina Christie and Alyssa Morris pose for a selfie to post. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Hundreds of graduate students at USC, UCLA and Caltech joined national protests Wednesday against the House Republican tax bill passed this month, saying it contains changes that would significantly increase their taxes and make it difficult for many to continue their research.

At USC, more than 100 students and professors gathered at the Tommy Trojan statue to urge peers to call their lawmakers and fight the changes. Many held colorful signs describing how their research benefits society: “Graduate students study food safety,” “Graduate students design highways.” 

USC student Hannah Khoddam and a handful of classmates began organizing the walkout this month, then joined forces with students from a group of six East Coast colleges to sponsor a national “day of action” that drew thousands of participants at nearly 60 campuses in 33 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.

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 doctoral student in physics. 

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 crucial knowledge and skills, he said, needed to drive the nation’s economy.

Some of the nation’s brightest STEM students joined the protest at Caltech in an unusual display of campus political activism. Celeste Labedz, a doctoral student studying glaciers with seismology, said the tax bill, if it became law, would make her graduate education unaffordable, forcing her to take out a loan and go into “massive debt.” 

The tax hikes could close off graduate education to all but those from wealthy families, said Emily Yen, a doctoral student in sociology at UCLA, where about 250 graduate students joined the protest Wednesday, 

“The UC system has prized itself on diversity — its first-generation, low-income students — and this is just going to reverse all these gains,” said Yen, president of the UC Student-Workers Union (UAW 2865). 

Others said they feared a tax boost would set off a brain drain of American researchers fleeing to Europe. Asked how many would consider doing so, more than half of the roughly 70 Caltech student protestors raised their hands.

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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