Clemson graduate students rally in response to federal tax reform bill
CLEMSON, South Carolina – Clemson University students, faculty and staff rallied together on Nov. 29 to protest a clause in the tax reform bill that is currently being proposed by the federal government.
The clause, as it currently stands, would add to the tax burden of graduate students at universities throughout the nation.
At Clemson University, graduate school tuition ranges from $27,628 to $30,572 annually, depending on whether the student is an in- or out-of-state resident. However, for approximately 1,891 graduate students who receive assistantships at Clemson, this tuition is waived in return for the students’ service to the university. In their assistantships, graduate students teach labs and classes to undergraduate students, conduct research and secure grant money to fund the scientific process.
Under the proposed bill, tuition would be counted as income and would be taxed. Teaching stipends, which are paid in addition to tuition, are already taxed.
“We’ll teach a couple sections of labs or be a teaching assistant for a lecture, and we’ll get paid about $18,000,” said Michael Carlo, an organizer of the Nov. 29 rally. “But we’re only paid for nine months, not for the summer. That in itself is a difficult wage to live on, but we all do it.
“If all of a sudden you’re making that $18,000 before taxes, and then your $30,000 in tuition waivers gets added, then add in $3,000 of fees to the school – under this bill, you’re basically going to be taxed as if you make $50,000 per year,” Carlo explained. “Any teaching stipend you once had would be gone. It would basically make working as a graduate student unlivable.”
Carlo went on to explain that the proposed tax bill would “become something where graduate opportunities are only available to the people who can afford that kind of cost.”
It’s this realization that led Carlo and Kylie Smith, a fellow graduate student in biological sciences, to plan the Rally to Save Higher Education. In step with a national protest of the same name, the rally began at 1 p.m. on Nov. 29 across college campuses.
“There are some universities who did full-on walkouts, where for whatever period of time at 1 p.m., graduate students all walked out, whether they were teaching, studying or doing research,” Carlo said. “But we didn’t want to disrupt the university, especially the undergraduate education that we’re all involved in, so we made the decision to make our protest more like a rally.”
After writing an open letter to students, faculty and staff, and spreading the word through social media, Carlo and Smith assembled about 200 people at Clemson’s Library Bridge at the start of the rally.
The group then marched to Sikes Hall, shouting chants such as, “Tax me, no degree,” and “Defend, not defund,” along the way.
Jason Coral, a graduate student in environmental toxicology, said he participated to protect the establishment of education in the United States.
“Without sound science and solid educational degrees, we can’t function as a society,” Coral said. “We’ll miss out on a lot of opportunities, on forwarding ourselves as a nation. And if we really want to be a leading, functional part of the world, we need to have educated people.”
Christian Pullano, a student in the master’s program for hydrogeology, said that taxing tuition will result in thousands of dollars in income tax that students can’t afford in today’s economy.
“This protest is important because, if this bill becomes law, it would mean that students will have to pay a lot of money – money they aren’t prepared to spend because they don’t have that much.”
Dan Callaghan, a graduate student in forest resources, echoed the same sentiments.
“The tuition that would be taxed – it’s not income that any of us graduate students actually receive,” Callaghan said. “The reason why most of us are here today is because we were able to get a tuition waiver. Yes, our degrees are something that we’re earning, but we never see a dollar of tuition, so we shouldn’t be taxed on it.”
Undergraduate Vineeth Sama, a student in bioengineering, says that this tax bill could affect his ability to pursue graduate school.
“Whether it’s an M.D.-Ph.D. or just a Ph.D. program, I definitely plan to pursue a career in grad school,” Sama said. “This tax bill is just completely unfair to graduate students. It sends a message that the United States doesn’t support graduate education – and to me, that’s a very important cause to defend.”
The rally drew attention from faculty members, as well, such as professor Lee Morrissey in the department of English. Morrissey attended the rally because he experienced tax reform much like the proposed tax bill in 1986.
“At the time, I was a full-time employee and a part-time graduate student, getting my master’s degree, and the reformed tax plan made the employee benefit of tuition taxable income,” Morrissey said. “In my case, I had a salary of $17,000. The tuition waivers were worth practically as much as that, and because it became taxable income, my taxes had to be taken out of that tuition credit. After the reform, my take-home pay was about $7,000 per year for two years while I got my master’s.”
Morrissey said that the tax bill presently being proposed will affect more students than it did in 1986.
“Now every graduate student with an assistantship, not just full-time employees, will have this tuition benefit revoked,” Morrissey said. “It would profoundly affect graduate education in the United States, which is currently the best graduate education in the world.”
“Graduate students are rising colleagues and critical members of society who have dedicated their lives and minds to the pursuit of new knowledge and the ways accustomed to improve our understanding of the world around us now, in the past, and in the future,” Lawton-Rauh’s statement said. “Faculty stand with you.”
Congress intends to settle a final version of the tax legislation before Dec. 25, after the Senate approved its version on Dec. 2.