I write on behalf of a group that includes mostly students pursuing master’s degrees in applied anthropology at Oregon State University. In the past few weeks, we have read many articles decrying the proposed changes in the House and Senate versions of the Republican tax bills, as well as several opinion pieces from PhD students from MIT and Princeton, and analyses of what student budgets would look like if legislators repeal the tax-exempt status of tuition waivers under Section 117(d).
Many students receive a position as a graduate teaching assistant or graduate research assistant that includes a modest stipend and a tuition waiver that allows us to take on the workload associated with graduate school without having to rely too heavily on student loans. Many of the prominent analyses have emphasized the damage that this bill could do to science, technology, engineering and mathematics-related fields, and particularly PhD students. We have written this letter to draw attention to the negative impacts that repealing Section 117(d) will have for liberal arts students who are just beginning their graduate studies.
We are very fortunate in our department as almost every student has the opportunity to take on these teaching duties, and this term we had over 500 undergraduate students in our classes. How modest is a teaching stipend? The average stipend for an anthropology graduate student at OSU is $10,487 annually, or just shy of $900 monthly. We only earn this income during nine months of the year, as graduate teaching assistant positions are not available during the summer term. Most of us work 0.3 FTE, which amounts to 12 hours of lecturing, writing exams, grading assignments, and meeting with students each week. In order to qualify for these teaching positions, we must enroll in 12 credits — which entails a minimum of 36 hours of coursework per week. In total, we have a 48-hour work-week on paper, although in reality this figure often becomes closer to 60 hours as we work to maintain a minimum 3.5 GPA and to contribute through internships in our community.
In addition to this stipend, which falls below the federal poverty level, we receive a waiver that covers our annual tuition of $14,390. The changes included in the House bill would add this sum to our total taxable income, essentially diminishing the average student’s usable income by 14.5 percent or $1,522, which is close to two months of post-deduction paychecks. Many of us fail to see the GOP’s commitment to ensuring that “people get to keep more of their own money in their own pocket,” as Speaker of the House Paul Ryan explained, in taxing graduate students on artificial income, and driving us further below the poverty level.
As social scientists, we acknowledge that people live complex lives and that there is great value in illustrating how systemic forces play out on the scale of the individual. Toward this end, we believe that it will be useful to speak from our own perspectives on how this proposed change would affect our lives and capacities to study. For the full-length version of this article, including individual testimonies and perspectives, please visit http://bit.ly/2ncBYXn.
We do not mean to speak for all students at OSU, nor for all anthropology students in the United States. We do want to encourage other students to speak out and contextualize the effects of repealing Section 117(d) to make sure that legislators understand that by taxing tuition waivers, they are making graduate studies inaccessible for many students.