Grad students rally against GOP tax plan


Thomas J. Yang

Casandra Armour Capri spoke against the Republican tax plan at a rally outside the Cathedral of Learning Wednesday. (Photo by Thomas Yang | Senior Staff Photographer)

Andrew Bellesis faces new decisions about his career prospects as the recently introduced Republican tax bill looms over the potential cost of his next five years at Pitt.

“We will defeat this bill,” Bellesis, a first-year biophysics Ph.D. student, said through his megaphone. “And in the long run we will defeat their power.”

Bellesis and about 40 others rallied Wednesday afternoon outside the Cathedral of Learning against the tax plan as part of a nationwide effort to #SaveGradEd. Graduate students at universities across the country, including Harvard, the University of Maryland and the University of Kansas collectively rallied as part of the National Day of Action to protest the bill.

The event on campus was planned by Socialist Alternative Pittsburgh, the local chapter of a national organization “fighting in [their] workplaces, communities, and campuses against the exploitation and injustices people face every day.

Brennan Chambre, a Master of Fine Arts candidate at Pitt, is involved in both Socialist Alternative Pittsburgh and the Graduate Student Organizing Committee and said the nationwide rally was important for uniting all those who would be affected by the tax plan — including graduate students, immigrant communities and elementary and high school teachers.

“For me this kind of event is important because it links up different struggles under a collective banner — that is, opposition to this bill,” he said.

Many graduate students currently get their tuition waived in exchange for teaching or research activities. But the proposed tax plan — called the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act — includes a repeal of Section 117(d)(5) Qualified Tuition Reduction Programs of the current tax code. This section exempts qualified tuition reduction, or any reduction in tuition provided to an employee, from being counted as taxable income. Its repeal means graduate program tuition support could become subject to taxation depending on the department and subject of study.

According to Shailendra Gajanan, professor of economics at Pitt-Bradford, the tax plan would affect graduate students who borrow money because they cannot afford a program by demoting the interest deduction on their debt, in addition to those who receive tuition waivers. Gajanan said the bill, if passed, would result in a 300 to 400 percent tax increase for graduate student workers in particular and would ultimately result in a drop in graduate student enrollment.

“If the tax burden is not going to be written off, then I am afraid that student enrollment for people who borrow money to attend graduate school is going to be made more difficult,” he said.

Gajanan explained the tax increase would be a problem since graduate student workers don’t receive money up-front.

“The income is not visible. The income is in terms of benefits and the only income [graduate students] have is living expenses,” Gajanan said. “You are taxing human capital, and that is a major, major problem.”

Gajanan also said, considering the approximately $913 million the government allots to the war in Iraq and Afghanistan per day, the elimination of education deductions would be insignificant compared to what could be saved from budget adjustments in other sectors, such as the military.

“Under the grand scheme of things, it’s not even a drop in the bucket,” he said.

Bellesis said the bill could require grad students to alter their education plans, switch universities or even quit their programs.

“I don’t come from money, and my family cannot afford to support me for five years during my Ph.D.,” Bellesis said. “It could easily knock me out of science.”

Beth Shaaban, a graduate student in her last year in the department of epidemiology in the Graduate School of Public Health at Pitt, explained how the graduate student contracts complicate these financial concerns.

“Both international students and students within the U.S. are obligated either by visa or by contract not to be having another job, so we really can’t plug the hole that this is going to cause unless some policies are changed,” she said.

Shaaban has been a lead Graduate Student Union organizer at Pitt and said the organization has been working to combat the plan through various letter-writing campaigns, events to call lawmakers and awareness activities to educate the Pitt community.

If the bill is passed before the academic year ends for most students in the spring, many students like Chambre may not be able to finish programs they are almost done with.

“It could feasibly make my last semester unfinishable,” Chambre said. “I’ve heard that it could affect our January paychecks, and that could be disastrous just for me to finish my degree.”

The bill would tax international students even more, according to Gajanan, making it more difficult for Pitt to support international students, such as Golnar Touski, a second-year grad student from Iran studying history of art and architecture. She spoke at the rally about how the tax bill targets international students, who can’t take out federal or bank loans in most cases.

“Honestly, I’ve been looking into European schools at this point, because going back home without a degree is not going to help me find jobs or improve my life,” she said.

Aside from Europe, Touski said she is also considering programs in Canada, where she has family, because going back to Iran is out of the question.

“For many international students from war-torn countries, going home is not an option,” she said.

Losing international graduate students would significantly harm the quality and competitiveness of research institutions like Pitt, Gajanan said. Because international students could end up with a higher tax bracket, many will only consider programs with the highest financial aid.

“Top universities like Pitt need not just American students,” he said. “They need international students because the best talent is out there in the world.”

But the bill and its effects are not yet set in stone. Shaaban said the GSOC will continue its efforts to educate students and obtain signatures on letters to bring to Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., next Wednesday.

“Unions are interested in collective bargaining, but in addition unions also engage in collective action,” she said. “That’s what you’re seeing now.”

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