s a graduate student in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics domain, I’m told that the U.S. needs more people like me. So why is the newly proposed Republican tax plan making it harder for STEM students to get the education we need?
Ph.D. students in STEM fields generally have their tuition waived and are given living stipends that range from $15,000 to $30,000 per year, depending on the program. They rely on tuition reduction to help offset the cost of pursuing advanced degrees. The same holds true for some students in master’s programs.
The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act proposes striking a section from the U.S. tax code that allows students like me to exclude qualified tuition reductions from our gross income when filing our taxes. This provision specifically applies to employees of colleges and universities. Striking this provision would mean students like me must include tuition waivers of $40,000 or more as income and pay taxes on it.
Graduate students are not a small community. I’m one of 522,131 first-time graduate enrollees, this year drawn from a pool of more than 2.2 million applications. Trends show consistent growth in this community over the past 10 years. In 2016, the average college graduate left school with $20,000 to $36,350 in student loan debt, depending on the state. The healthy growth in graduate education in STEM fields could stop if enrolling in master’s and Ph.D. programs means accruing even more debt.
Research is a fundamental part of science — without it, we could not have cured smallpox or gone to the moon, and we would not be carrying supercomputers in our pockets. STEM fields often rely on graduate students to conduct the bulk of academic research studies, as professors’ time is limited by teaching, managing labs and students, and other administrative tasks. Anything that limits the number of students from pursuing graduate education in a STEM field could curtail research.
Members of Congress know the necessity of research, as demonstrated by their $2 billion boost in funding for the National Institutes of Health. The same members of Congress need to support the researchers who contribute to cutting-edge discoveries by preventing the financial burden imposed by striking the exclusion of qualified tuition reductions as part of the Tax Cuts and Job Act.
STEM students are finding that the master’s degree is becoming the new bachelor’s degree. With so many fields converging on advanced degrees, major sectors of the U.S. economy are increasingly dependent on graduate education. Shrinking the flow of graduate researchers would force STEM companies to turn to less educated and less experienced workers, which could significantly affect the research they do.
From Silicon Valley superpowers to large pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, science and technology help power the U.S. economy. To keep these and other industries operating at their peak, we need effective graduate education that creates future generations of STEM workers. Changes to the tax code that make graduate education more expensive for students would be counterproductive.
President Trump said that the Republican tax reform plan would be “rocket fuel for the economy.” Making graduate school more expensive for students by boosting the amount of federal income tax they pay would significantly water down that fuel.
Coleman Harris is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Biostatistics at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.