How the GOP Tax Plan Could Destroy Science in America

Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Brian Snyder/Reuters

Update | Major science organizations are strongly opposing the GOP tax plan, which they say could severely harm American science by making graduate degrees too costly to pursue. The tax plan includes a provision that would force graduate students to pay thousands of dollars more per year in taxes.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) condemned the plan in a letter to the House of Representatives last week, saying the increased cost could keep students from continuing their education. Because most graduate students in the U.S. are in the STEM (Science, Math, Engineering, and Technology) fields, they'd likely bear the brunt of it.   

Many graduate students in the U.S. are given an annual stipend in exchange for doing research work and teaching students. The stipend often amounts to between $15,000 and $30,000 dollars. (Stipends and tuition vary greatly among schools and individual students.) In exchange for their work as teachers and researchers, graduate students have their tuition (between $40,000 and $50,000 a year, roughly) waived by their universities.

Graduate students have been paying taxes on their stipends since the Reagan era, so a graduate student being paid $25,000 would pay taxes the way a person working any job that pays $25,000 would.

Under the GOP proposal, that same grad student would be taxed as if her income included her tuition. So a graduate student effectively making $25,000 a year would then have to pay the taxes of someone making a $75,000 annual salary.

In an op-ed against the tax plan in The New York Times, one graduate student with a chronic neurological condition wrote that, if the provision in the House plan becomes law, she would “be forced to choose between medical expenses and [her] education.” She also noted that international graduate students, who make up 43 percent of students at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), would likely be compelled to study elsewhere—as might American students. 

As a document created by students at Carnegie Melon University and reported by Wired shows, some students could have their stipends effectively cut from $27,000 to $19,000, or from $13,000 to $8,000 for the year.

The tax bill passed through the House last week. The most recent version of the Senate bill does not change the tax status of graduate student stipends, but it remains to be seen what will happen when the House and Senate come together to write a final version of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.

This story has been updated to reflect the fact that the Senate bill did not include the same provision as the House bill.