‘I Would Have to Drop Out’: 200 Texas Grad Students Walk Out to Protest GOP Tax Bill

Students at UT-Austin Wednesday protested both proposed tax legislation and what they say are exploitative labor conditions.

Graduate students marched through the UT-Austin campus Wednesday.
Graduate students marched through the UT-Austin campus Wednesday. Gus Bova

As part of a series of protests nationwide, around 200 graduate students walked out of classrooms, labs and office hours at the University of Texas at Austin Wednesday to protest the Republican tax plan. The students took aim at a provision that would count their tuition waivers as taxable income — a move that many said would push them off an already precarious financial cliff and force them to drop out. As cold drizzle fell and Congress moved toward a final tax proposal, the lively crowd huddled under umbrellas near the campus’ iconic clock tower.

“The university would collapse without our labor,” said Nick Bloom, a 27-year-old doctoral student in American studies who helped organize the event. “We grade papers, we work as teaching assistants, we work as tutors, all in addition to our coursework and research.” Bloom said he makes about $18,000 a year from teaching, researching and running social media for his department. Bloom says he pays nothing in tuition, and if he were required to pay taxes on the full amount, he might have to drop out of school.

Solid crowd of grad students walking out now at UT-Austin to protest the proposed tax legislation despite cold and rain.

Posted by The Texas Observer on Wednesday, December 6, 2017

As Bloom addressed the crowd, students held signs reading “UT Cannot Work Without Us,” “Tuition Waivers Are Not Income” and “Let’s Eat the Lobbyists.” During a march around campus, the group chanted “Tax Scam on Our Backs” and “Overworked, Underpaid, Graduate Students Will Not Stay.”

The Republicans’ tax reform bill is headed to a conference committee, where the House and Senate plan to iron out differences between their proposals. Both versions would drastically slash taxes for corporations, but the House version would also take a shot at graduate students by taxing their free tuition as income.

One in four doctoral students nationwide received tuition waivers in 2012, according to the Council of Graduate Schools — along with a smaller percentage of undergrads. Economics graduate students at MIT have estimated that the House’s tax proposal would increase their tax burden by as much as 400 percent, and the American Council on Education estimates the measure would cost students some $65 billion by 2027.

U.S. Representative Kevin Brady, a Republican from The Woodlands, was an architect of the bill that passed the House in November, and he’s set to serve on the conference committee that will hash out the final proposal. Brady has claimed taxing tuition waivers would even the playing field for students who work off campus: “Outside of the university world, there is some controversy to the current tax provisions,” he said.

Students marching in Austin Wednesday.  Gus Bova

But students point out that tuition waivers are nothing like ordinary income. “If this waiver is taxed, we will be taxed on money that we never see,” said Bloom, while a nearby student held a sign reading “I can’t eat tuition waivers.”

The UT System Board of Regents also approved a tuition increase this week that will raise costs by 4 percent by 2019.

The Observer spoke Wednesday with graduate students studying English, biology, Spanish and theater who all said they would have to consider dropping out of school if the House tax proposal becomes law. Cristian Méndez, a theater student from Guatemala, said he only made $11,000 last year teaching Spanish at UT.

Aris Clemons.  Gus Bova

Aris Clemons, a 33-year-old Ph.D. student studying sociolinguistics, also teaches Spanish at the university. She said she uses her pre-tax income of $16,000 a year to support herself and her mother in California. She’s the first in her family to pursue an advanced degree, and said she’s already barely making it. Clemons was unambiguous about what the tax measure would mean for her: “I would have to drop out,” she said. “I would have no choice.”

Gus Bova reports on immigration, the U.S.-Mexico border and grassroots movements for the Observer. He formerly worked at a shelter for asylum-seekers and refugees. You can contact him at [email protected]

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