The following question faces Congress, and therefore it faces the American people: should graduate education be affordable for Americans? Doctoral training programs in this country are funded through grants made by federal institutions including the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Department of Defense, and the National Institutes of Health.
This grant application process is extremely competitive, with groups of the country’s leading researchers writing detailed proposals which specify how precious federal dollars will be spent. A large proportion of awarded grant money is dedicated to training graduate students.
Graduate students are an essential part of the nation’s research labor force. They are the workers who conduct the experiments, collect the data, and write the software that keeps scientific progress moving forward. They investigative how we communicate, they restore the lost heritage of our nation’s past, and they help to educate others who are seeking higher education as teaching assistants at colleges in all fifty states.
Training graduate students is expensive. They often require huge investments in laboratory space and equipment, in addition to experiences that need to be created for them in the classroom and in the field for them to achieve mastery over their area of study. In addition to paying for these costs through grants, universities also provide a stipend, usually less than $30,000 per year, to help graduate students pay for their living expenses. The stipend is usually the only take-home income that a graduate student earns while earning their doctorate due to the high demands of their training.
In the past, only the stipend was taxed by the federal government as income, however the current version of the House of Representative’s proposed Tax Cuts & Jobs Act (H.R. 1) seeks to change that. The Tax Cuts & Jobs Act would add the cost of doctoral training (paid for by the university through grants) to each student’s individual income. The cost of training regularly exceeds $40,000, and therefore H.R. 1 would increase many doctoral student’s tax bills to the point where their stipend alone would not provide a living wage.
Therefore, let us return to the question asked at the beginning of this essay: should graduate education be affordable for Americans? H.R. 1 would make it extraordinarily difficult for those who are not independently wealthy to be able to afford graduate school. Our nation is speckled with some of the greatest educational and research centers to ever exist. These institutions are not limited to elite coastal communities: Urbana-Champaign, Blacksburg, Tuscaloosa, Lincoln, and Iowa City all host research departments that are the envy of the world. Do we want to put these institutions out of reach after two centuries of building them up for our mutual national benefit? The prominence and continued success of America’s ability to produce new knowledge can only be guaranteed if these institutions can continue to attract the best and brightest to their graduate programs.
In an era where folks are doubting America’s future exceptionalism in the world, the quality of our educational and research institutions is one area where we are still truly number one. A great deal of credit for this continued achievement belongs to our country’s graduate students, who have chosen to dedicate years to their art or science in order to move our world forward and to protect our country’s greatness. If you believe the great artistic works and scientific technologies of this century should be created in the United States, then please contact your Senator and ask them to vote NO to changes to the tax code until graduate students are protected. If you’re unsure about how to contact your Senator I encourage you to use 5calls.org to help you get in touch. Future generations of researchers are counting on all of us, so thank you for speaking up on their behalf!