Campus, News

House tax bill unlikely to affect BU grad students

The U.S. House of Representatives on Nov. 16 passes a new tax bill that will reduce tax benefits for Americans paying student loans. PHOTO COURTESY US CAPITOL

Graduate students at Boston University will not likely be burdened with higher taxes under the GOP tax plan that was passed in the U.S. House of Representatives early last week.

The bill contains a provision that would consider tuition waivers — money universities give to graduate students to cover the cost of their education — as taxable income, according to University Provost Jean Morrison. However, since BU funds its doctoral students through scholarships rather than tuition waivers, graduate students would not be subject to this taxation, she said.

Still, Morrison said that there is a lot of uncertainty, specifically in terms of the impending Senate version of the bill.

“We’re not quite sure what the Senate bill might do,” Morrison said. “But depending upon how the university offers the tuition remission, we may well be able to ensure that our Ph.D. students’ tuition remission benefits remain untaxed.”

She added that the university has taken preventative measures to influence the tax bill’s progress in Washington, working closely with the Association of American Universities and the BU Federal Relations office.

“We’ve asked all our constituents to contact their congresswomen and men and point out that these new taxes on education are going to make it harder for people to afford their education,” she said.

Morrison said since most master’s students do not receive tuition remission from the university and instead pay most of the tuition themselves, they would not be affected by the House bill either.

Even though doctoral students at BU appear to be safe from potential tax increases, there are other elements in House bill that could threaten graduate education, Getty Lustila, the president of BU’s Graduate Student Organization, said.

Lustila, who is studying philosophy, said he is concerned about provisions that would increase taxes on endowments and take away deductions for charitable giving.

“This would obviously lead to less incentive for people to give to schools because they can’t deduct off their taxable income,” he said.

While doctoral students may not see their taxes change, BU Graduate Workers Union member Brian Barone said it is not clear what the impacts of the tax bill could be on other members of the BU community.

“There are other workers on our campus, other staff members and professors, who would see their tax burdens go up because they received and they used for themselves or their family tuition remission to pay for school,” Barone said.

Barone added that he thinks it is unacceptable the GOP is attacking higher education through the provisions in this bill.

“We’re working with our grad colleagues across the country to call and write to make sure that these ideas stop with this one house version of the bill and don’t make it through the rest of this process,” he said.

Several doctoral students said they think the plan would obstruct graduate students from pursuing higher education degrees.

Shrabastee Banerjee, a doctoral student studying quantitative marketing in the Questrom School of Business, wrote in an email that taxing tuition waivers for graduate students would make graduate schools even less attractive than they already are.

“Getting a [Ph.D.] is a tremendous commitment, both in terms of signing up for a generally low income, as well as getting used to a life where rewards aren’t immediate,” Banerjee wrote. “With the enhanced tax burden, smart people will be even less likely to go down this road, and choose other outside options.”

Stuart Babcock, a second-year graduate student pursuing a doctoral degree in computational neuroscience, wrote in an email that he thinks doctoral students at other institutions may be adversely impacted by the new tax bill.

“Regarding tuition remission taxation specifically, the spirit of it seems to work against American ingenuity and scholarship in the academic realm,” Babcock wrote.

Andrew David, a doctoral candidate in the history department, wrote in an email that academic jobs are already difficult enough to come by, and increased taxation could force many to abandon the profession.

“Even if we at BU are lucky enough not to face this choice, other graduate students around the country might not be so fortunate,” David wrote.

David added he has reached out to his elected representatives about the issue.

“I’m one of the lucky ones in all this since as an almost lifelong resident of Massachusetts, I feel that my representative and the State’s senators already hold views on this that are close to mine,” he wrote.

Stacey Goguen, who received her doctorate degree in philosophy from BU last year, said affordability of graduate education is an issue that is in everybody’s best interest.

“If only the [wealthier] classes can afford graduate school, then a disproportionate amount of our scientific questions, political theory, philosophy, sociology, and history scholarship are going to be shaped by a single segment of the population,” she said.

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