The Political Is Personal: How The GOP Tax On Tuition Waivers Would Affect My Students

The House GOP plan would tax tuition waivers, opening a new front in Republicans’ war on higher education. This plan is particularly cruel and cold-hearted because most graduate students can only pursue a masters or doctorate because the tuition waiver supplements their meager stipend. Adding tax on the tuition waiver will simply mean many students will no longer be able to attend graduate school.

Numerous articles have documented the general impact of this proposed tax. I want to make it personal by considering specifically how this would impact my students, to give a face to this tax by looking at the real people it will drastically affect.

In my program, Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, at Oregon State University, the stipend for MA students is just over $10,000 for nine months of 13-14 hours per week of labor. For our Ph.D. students, the stipend is $17,640 for 20 hours per week of work. Our graduate TAs are indispensable to our program. They teach a number of online and on-campus undergraduate courses, many of which are in the university’s general education curriculum.

The university values their tuition and fees waiver at $18,831. Currently, that amount is not taxed, but under the House GOP plan, students would pay taxes, not only on the stipend as they currently do, but also on the value of the waiver. While an additional tax of a few hundred to a couple of thousand dollars may not seem much to Republican legislators, for my students, it means the difference between being able to stay in school or not.

Around 145,000 graduate students nationwide receive tuition waivers. Our WGSS program right now offers twenty-one of them, and here’s what the Republican plan would mean for my students.

Most of my students enroll already facing tremendous structural barriers—they are mostly women and trans/non-binary people; many are students of color; many are queer; most are first generation university students; many come from poor and working class backgrounds; many have disabilities; many are international students. Very, very few of them, if any, could attend graduate school without the tuition waiver and stipend. Now, the possibility of an additional tax threatens that already tenuous opportunity.

I first met Nyk two summers ago when he was an OSU online anthropology student living in Ohio. Nyk participated in a short term study abroad program I co-led in Guatemala, “Women in Resistance.” Nyk’s health issues had mostly kept him confined to his childhood home. He was quiet and shy and incredibly bright. With some improvements in his health, he decided to take the risk of studying social justice issues abroad, and, by the time the trip ended, he had resolved to move to Oregon and finish his degree by taking some classes on campus. With his confidence growing, he also decided to apply to graduate school.

Nyk is a self-described “disabled, queer, trans, Native American student” who was only able to accept our program’s offer of a place in the masters’ cohort because of the tuition waiver and stipend, which he says barely allows him to pay his rent and feed himself. In fact, his first term he had to borrow textbooks because he did not have enough money left over to buy them. He says that the tax increase would mean he would have to leave the program because he could not afford to stay.

Education is one of the surest ways for people to create greater social and financial security for themselves, and yet the GOP plan promises to shortcut that possibility for thousands of graduate students. For most of my students, surviving economically during the years of graduate study is difficult at best. For many, like Nyk, the choice is often already between food and textbooks. If the GOP plan passes, many students will have no choice at all because their only path to graduate school will be effectively blocked.

Another of my students is an American citizen who has lived outside the U.S. for most of her life. She moved to Corvallis with her partner, who is not a citizen, and her daughter to attend graduate school. Her partner has not yet received a work permit, and so the entire family is living off her stipend. She says most of the money goes for rent, and she has asked family to help with food and books. If Congress implements the Republican House tax plan, she will not be able to stay in school.

Lisa is a graduate student in our program. Her husband, the first in his family to go to college, is an undergraduate. His family thinks he’s wasting his time and wants him to get a job as a laborer. Lisa is supporting them both with her stipend. She says that the increased tax would mean that she would have to take a second job, cutting down on her time for study and likely extending her degree program beyond the expected two years for a masters.

As Republicans have attacked higher education in general, they have also often singled out cultural studies, ethnic studies, and women, gender, and sexuality studies as examples of wasted money in politically correct disciplines that don’t get people jobs. Here’s the truth in my program though. Our students don’t come to graduate school to acquire wealth. They come to change the world. And they do get jobs.

My students are the very kind of people the Right often refers to as “snowflakes.” They’re idealistic, driven by hope for a better world. They care deeply about others, especially the most vulnerable. They care about the structures that create barriers to survival and opportunity. They want people to be treated fairly, equitably, with respect. They are passionate about their commitments to radical love and justice; and they believe in resisting oppression.

The Right intends “snowflake” as a term of derision. They think students like mine are weak and overly sensitive because they care about the words we use and the harm we do to one another. But I know my students are strong, and they are dedicated. I see it every day in their lives and in their work.

As I mentioned, most of them come from already vulnerable social positions, and so they have overcome many barriers just to be here. They sacrifice greatly to be graduate students. They live on a shoestring at best. They work hard at their jobs as teaching assistants. Some are single parents who juggle the responsibilities of school and parenthood. Some are from majority Muslim countries and are afraid to go home for a visit while they’re in school lest the U.S. government refuse them entry to return to their studies. Some have left partners back home, thousands of miles away.

Rebecca is about halfway through her Ph.D. program. She says, “I am at a loss as to how I would finish if I become taxed on tuition waiver money. My partner and I have chosen to make sacrifices in order for me to get both my masters and Ph.D., but being taxed on tuition is a burden that we cannot take on. It is also one that we have not chosen to take on, but one that is being forced upon us by a congress that is out of touch with its constituents and our needs.”

Yet in the end a graduate education in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies prepares students to make a positive difference in the world.

My former students are in professions helping others, bringing social justice perspectives to workplaces, doing good in the world. One of my former students went to medical school after her graduate program in women studies. She became a hospitalist and says her women studies degree has helped her bring a gender lens to medicine. Another former graduate student helped support women who wanted to leave polygamous marriages. Another works for United Way. Another is a small business owner. Several others work on college campuses as academic advisors or student affairs leaders or professors. Others work in social services. Their degrees in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies have led them to productive careers that contribute positively to society in general and to marginalized communities and individuals in particular.

Sara Gelser is an Oregon State Senator who studied history and women studies in her graduate program. She has specifically sponsored and supported legislation to support vulnerable populations—foster children, people with disabilities, victims of sex trafficking, survivors of domestic and sexual violence, public school children.

She says, “Graduate school was an important time for me to test ideas and figure out how philosophy and theory applied to real life. As a women studies student, I was especially inspired by my feminist theory course and the discussion of Simone de Beauvoir’s theory of ‘othering.’ As a legislator, I often find myself asking who the ‘other’ is in legislation I am writing in order to test how it will impact vulnerable populations.

She continues, “For instance, in foster care when we ‘other’ children in care, we pathologize them, making normal childhood or adolescent behaviors somehow broken or criminal. I have used that theory to try to upend these assumptions and craft policy and dialogue that allows room for all voices and all experiences. This also applies to foster kids, sexual assault survivors, conflicts between urban and rural communities, disability work and criminal justice policy. I don’t think I could have done that as effectively without the opportunity to really get a grounding in these ideas through my Women Studies courses.”

Another former student manages construction for a large tech company, after having managed multiple diverse teams in both IT and construction for another company. She says her masters in women studies, “provides a unique understanding of the complexity of working and guiding a culturally diverse work force. This understanding and insight allows me both to be effective as a manager, as well as to ensure successful performance from a diverse team within high stress environments.” She adds, “Having insight into the matrix of oppression and cultural biases allows me to check both my own behaviors and recognize, understand and course correct others’ behaviors.”

Access to a graduate degree in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies has made a tremendous difference in the lives of my former students, as well as in the lives of the individuals and communities they serve. Our nation and our world are better places because these students bring their knowledge and skills to the work they do.

Today’s graduate students deserve this same opportunity, and our world desperately needs their insights, critiques, innovations, passion, and dedication to address global problems of poverty, violence, discrimination, ethnic/national/religious division, and environmental degradation. If the House GOP plan comes into effect, most of these students, who would make contributions to benefit us all, will not finish their graduate degrees. That will be a huge personal loss for each of them. And it will be a tremendous loss for all of us—loss of the next generation educated to effect social change toward a more inclusive, equitable, and just world.

House Republicans may not think that’s important. They’re far removed from the realities of higher education which they lampoon and mischaracterize.

My students, however, are the resistance. They are hope for a more just future. We cannot fail them by making graduate education inaccessible except for the very rich.

Nearly 40 years ago poet Adrienne Rich told students to “claim” their education—to take it as the rightful owner, even in the face of contradiction. At the time, she was speaking specifically to women students who were deeply marginalized within higher education. She told them not to let others do their thinking for them but to respect their own brains and instincts and to demand they be taken seriously by their faculty.

Her advice is still sage. Marginalized students must claim their education—especially, apparently, from House Republicans.