Local universities wonder about the future of graduate programs

Nov 21, 2017

Credit Griszka Niewiadomski / Freeimages.com

A tax bill passed by House Republicans last week has many graduate students and staff wondering about the future of their programs.

Two deans of graduate education at local universities say the proposed tax bill has millions of dollars in cuts to deductions and exclusions that help current graduate students fund their educations.

Graduate students now receive tuition waivers for the classes they take and are paid a stipend by their university. They are then only taxed on the income they see, which is that stipend.

But what could happen is students would be taxed on the tuition waivers as well, money they never directly had. Therefore, making it almost impossible to afford even just the taxes on a graduate education.

Edith Lord is the Senior Associate Dean of Graduate Education at the University of Rochester Medical Center. She said as much as several thousand dollars could be added to what students pay now, and could make graduate school less of a viable option for most students. 

Lord says that is disappointing because higher education keeps the United States a leader in research.

"It requires a real investment. It’s an investment that our young people have to make, that this is a desirable enough career that despite the challenges; that they're willing to undertake this. And without that, we are going to fall seriously behind."

Lord goes on to say a change like this could go far beyond immediate students and staff as well.

"The University of Rochester is the #1 employer in the county and is a very important economic engine for the area. So anything that impacts the university impacts the community."

If this section of the bill passes, Lord says, it would also affect current employees at universities who take classes, they would be taxed on those tuition waivers as well.

Twyla Cummings is the Dean of Graduate Education at the Rochester Institute of Technology. She adds students might have to pay as much as three times their current taxes if passed, and that students on campus are getting worried, especially PhD students.

"That is a group that gets the largest amount of tuition remission right now. And if they were to have to pay taxes on that, that would be devastating for them. So they’re very concerned, they’re very upset."

The bill is under review in the senate to be voted on after Thanksgiving.

Some universities count grad students tuition waivers as a type of scholarship, and the tax bill would not affect the way scholarships are taxed, so that's one way universities might be able to get around this change if its passed though. But that still doesn’t ease anxieties.

"Their question is well how will I live? How will I cover my expenses if I have to pay three times what I’ve been paying for taxes. And my stipend isn’t going to be increased most likely?"

Both women said their departments are working to make their campus voices heard and advocate for their students for the future of graduate education in Rochester.