Biology Grad Student Perspective: New Tax Bill is War on Education

grad student tax march

UC Davis graduate students march to protest a new tax bill that would repeal tuition-free waivers. Greg Watry/UC Davis

by Greg Watry

UC Davis graduate students gathered Wednesday morning, Nov. 29, outside the Memorial Union, the central hub of campus, to protest tax reform legislation being considered by Congress. The demonstration was part of the “Grad Tax Walkout,” a national event meant to show solidarity against the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which, if passed, would make graduate education unaffordable for millions of Americans.

“For us, it’s a huge burden,” said Marc Pollack, ’08 B.S., and microbiology Ph.D. student. “We’re already scrimping and saving barely on what we have.”

Pollack, who was among the protesters Wednesday, lives in Davis with his wife, a teacher in the Davis School District. If the tax bill passes, he believes their life in Davis might be in jeopardy.

“We’re not able to get by just on what I earn,” said Pollack, who noted his wife doesn’t make a tremendous amount either. “I think we’d be unable to afford a lot of the basic things that we have.”

If passed, the new tax bill would repeal tax-free tuition waivers, which many graduate students need to pursue higher education. In exchange for waived tuition, graduate students work as teaching assistants, research assistants and tutors. More than 40 percent of 23,000 UC Davis graduate students received such exemptions. While the waivers help students save on tuition, they don’t cover expenses related to health insurance, transportation, books or supplies.

In an editorial appearing in The Sacramento Bee, Chancellor Gary S. May called the bill “an attack on higher education in the name of reform.”

“We are teachers, researchers, and deserve a living wage”

grad protest march note

Graduate students, many already stretched financially, see education as a public good. UC Davis Graduate Studies

Protesting students congregated brandishing signs with messages like, “Tax the 1%, not grad school” and “End the war on education.” Organizers rallied the crowd; their calls met by cheers. Eventually, the protest mobilized, and the students, with their signs and chants, marched across the quad and through campus.

Ryan Phillips, a neuroscience Ph.D. student, pays around $2,000 per year in taxes for his $33,000 stipend.

“My understanding is that (it) could go up to $5,000, $6,000, $7,000 because that tuition is going to count as income,” he said. “Frankly, the stipend is about enough to cover living expenses.” 

He expressed concern for future and early career graduate students.

“I’m close to the end of my program, but I have friends that are applying to grad school or are in their first and second year,” Phillips said. “I would recommend that they leave. I don’t think that this is a tenable institution if this tax bill is implemented.”

Shannon Kieran, an integrative genetics and genomics Ph.D. student, marched with fellow members of the UC Davis Genomic Variation Lab. Kieran studies conservation genetics and wildlife management in California. Her day-to-day involves meeting with land managers, conducting extensive fieldwork and working 9-to-5 shifts in the lab.

“The work that we do is applied and immediately meaningful to our communities, and when you lose graduate students, you lose a lot of the feet on the ground,” she said. “This is going to disincentivize principal investigators from taking on new students.”

To learn more about the proposed tax law changes and how you can make your voice heard, visit the UC Davis Grad Studies Tax Law webpage.