As a graduate student at Duke University, I study how plants and animals exist in mutually beneficial relationships, providing protection, services and resources to one another that they otherwise could not obtain alone. Removing one would harm the other.
Humans are not so different. We rely on our friends and family in times of sickness and in health. We work together to protect our homes from incoming storms. We pay taxes to pave our roads and keep our nation safe and strong.
I never expected my research – or those of my fellow students -- to be tied to tax law, but Congress is now considering taxing graduate students on money they never see. While no one is advocating for tax evasion, here’s why that’s a bad idea.
Duke’s tuition for graduate students in years 1-3 of their Ph.D. is $55,000 annually and nearly $11,000 annually from year 4 and onwards. In exchange for teaching undergraduates and conducting research, I receive a tuition waiver and a small stipend that is just enough for me to pay my bills. The tuition waiver never goes into my bank account but is awarded to students by the university as a way to support innovation and science that will help shape our nation’s future.
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However, under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) put forward by the House of Representatives, graduate student tuition waivers would be considered taxable income. The Senate did not, thanks in part to Senators Burr and Tillis. This means that my fellow graduate students who are in the early stages of their career would owe roughly $12,000 in taxes – five times what they currently contribute. Because I am in my fourth year of my Ph.D., I would pay an additional $950 a year in taxes.
That may not sound like a lot of money to many. But not everyone in graduate school comes from families of wealth.
I grew up in Sanford, where my parents owned and ran a restaurant for over 25 years. I graduated high school from the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics which, at the time, granted me a tuition scholarship to UNC-system schools. The combination of the NCSSM and need-based scholarships I was awarded enticed me to stay in-state for school and obtain my undergraduate degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I chose to enter graduate school not because the future pay prospects were great (they’re not), but because I was enthralled with the prospect of conducting research that could benefit coastal communities. I also wanted to share my love of the sea with the next generation of students.
My research protects our coasts. It is estimated that 55 million acres of wetlands in the United States have been lost within the last century alone. This loss in habitat has hurt many commercially and recreationally important fisheries. Shrimp, blue crabs, clams, oysters, flounder, red drum, speckled trout, scallops and countless others rely on these wetlands to live, and coastal towns rely on fisheries for economic stability.
My research tests how harnessing beneficial interactions where species aid rather than harm one another, can be applied to oyster reef, seagrass and salt marsh restoration. Using the methods I am developing, we may make restoration more efficient and resilient.
I am excited by the thought of helping the people of North Carolina. I am eager to share my knowledge with those who share my passion. But had the tax plan now before Congress been on the books when I was considering graduate school, I may have never applied.
For those currently in graduate school, a drastic increase in tax liability may mean that many will need to rely on food stamps and government subsidies to survive. It could lead others to withdraw from their current programs.
For me, it would mean that I will need to take out loans and further delay my hopes of contributing to a retirement plan or saving for the down payment on my first home.
It’s not hard to see how the TCJA will negatively impact education and research in the United States; how it will handicap those now in graduate school and how it will deter many from applying in the future.
I want what’s best for North Carolina, which is blessed with many fine universities and a robust research ethos. For that reason, I urge you to contact your representatives to express why they should reject any proposals that would increase the tax liability of graduate students.
Stacy Zhang is a Ph.D. candidate at the Duke University Marine Lab.