- Ralph K.M. Haurwitz American-Statesman Staff
University of Texas graduate students are protesting wages they consider too low as well as a measure passed by the U.S. House that would require them to pay taxes on tuition charges waived by the university.
About 200 staged a walkout at noon Wednesday to rally on UT’s Main Mall in a cold rain, chanting, “Grad students will not stay overworked and underpaid,” and brandishing signs with messages like “UT runs on grad student labor” and “No humanity without the humanities.”
UT, like many universities, pays students working on a master’s degree or a doctorate to serve as teaching assistants, assistant instructors or research assistants; such income is taxable. And like other universities, it waives the cost of tuition for many graduate students; that money, which the students never see, would be taxed under the House version of a major tax overhaul, significantly raising their taxable incomes.
About 5,000 UT graduate students received a total of $48 million in waivers during the fall 2016 and spring 2017 semesters, or about $9,600 per student, according to the university. Graduate students’ taxable compensation varies considerably by college or school within UT from roughly $13,000 to $30,000 per academic year, said Shilpa Bakre, a university spokeswoman.
“Many graduate students do not make a living wage and are forced to work additional jobs in order to cover the basic cost of living,” said Kareem Mostafa, president of the Graduate Student Assembly at UT, who is working on a master’s degree.
If the House tax provision becomes law, “graduate students’ already inadequate compensation will be severely diminished, making it impossible for all but the extremely wealthy to attend graduate school at all,” Mostafa said.
Graduate students at the University of California in Berkeley, Ohio State University, the University of Pittsburgh and numerous other campuses also have staged walkouts and other protests in recent days and weeks.
Mark Smith, dean of UT’s Graduate School and senior vice provost for academic affairs, acknowledged concern about the House legislation in a recent email to students. He noted that the bill also would eliminate a provision that allows up to $2,500 in student loan interest to be deducted annually and a provision that makes up to $5,250 in student assistance paid by employers tax-free.
These changes, especially elimination of tax-free tuition waivers, “could have a devastating impact on many graduate students,” Smith wrote.
It’s not clear whether those provisions will remain after Senate and House negotiators resolve differences between the two chambers’ tax bills.
Anna Lyon, a UT doctoral student in American studies, is paid about $15,000 a year as a teaching assistant. She said she is fortunate because she also is a middle school teacher.
“We are not trying to broadcast a human interest story about how hard our lives are,” she said. Rather, graduate students are speaking out “to make our labor visible” and to show how the House tax bill “further marginalizes people in our university whose situation is already the most vulnerable,” especially students from low-income families, many of whom are minority members or the first generation in their family to attend college.
Jeffrey Boruszak, a graduate student in English studying contemporary American poetry, said in a Facebook post that his taxable income from UT last year was $20,547. “I was able to hustle a few thousand extra $ from other sources over the course of the year” and wound up owing the IRS $1,378, he wrote. If he had to pay taxes on waived tuition, he would owe the IRS at least $3,076 by his calculation, an increase of $1,689 or 123 percent.
“If you split a 2BR apartment with a roommate like I do,” Boruszak wrote, “then according to the average rent in Austin, that’s basically two months of rent you have to make up somewhere along the line.”
“Given the largess of our university and its premier status as a tier one research university, you would think the university would be able to recruit high-quality graduate students and pay them adequately,” said Robert Oxford, a Ph.D. candidate in American studies.
A report in 2004 by a blue-ribbon panel known as the Commission of 125 urged the university to raise stipends for graduate students “at least as high as those at the nation’s other premier graduate schools.” UT officials did not immediately respond when asked to describe progress toward that goal, which administrators embraced at the time of the report.