Letter to the Editor: CMU must defend graduate students

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

Graduate students are under attack in the latest House tax bill. The GOP’s plan is to tax our tuition waivers as if they were income, and to remove student loan interest deductions, making graduate school substantially more expensive. According to an analysis by our very own Graduate Student Assembly (GSA), some Ph.D. students may owe $10k annually in taxes under this bill. This is unacceptable.

The first Carnegie Mellon University responses to the bill came from our GSA (see their appearance in several articles, including in Wired). Carnegie Mellon administrators seem to have been caught unaware and uninformed. Yet this information has been public since Nov. 2, when the House Bill was first released, and at the time of writing, the administration still has no public plan.

In fact, in Interim President Jahanian’s only email to the University at large, he mentions only “proposals to tax graduate student stipends,” which is not even the correct issue. The proposal is to tax our tuition, not our stipends. This response fails to inspire confidence. By way of contrast, Cornell and Notre Dame have already released definitive statements about whether their students are affected by the proposed tuition tax. Why has our administration not made a similar statement?

Either the administration simply does not know, or it is deliberately keeping us in the dark to prevent a panic.

Perhaps the administration is genuinely clueless, due to CMU’s decentralized nature. Without central oversight, there is wild variation in how tuition, stipends, fees, and health insurance are handled across the colleges.

What seems likely is that, as a private school with extremely high tuition, CMU will be hurt a lot more by this tax bill than public R1 universities. It’s bad enough that we students pay $2000 plus tax for health insurance. This additional tax burden will make graduate school fiscally untenable. Either the university will shoulder the financial burden or students will choose to go elsewhere.

Ph.D. students commonly do not take classes after their first two years, but tuition is still paid on their behalf. So what does our tuition fund? Our previous president made nearly $900,000 annually, while annual stipends for CMU Ph.D. students can be as low as $13,500 per year (for reference, according to one I-20, the cost of living in Pittsburgh is $20,500).

And what if the bill passes? The Trump administration wants this signed by Thanksgiving and telling ourselves “it will never pass” is delusional. If not passed, the bill could come back in some watered-down form, likely still harmful (like Trump’s immigration ban and healthcare bill). We need to be prepared to fight a long fight against this provision whenever it appears.

If passed, the bill will take effect April 6, likely affecting every graduate student on campus, and the University needs a plan for when that happens.

Concerned Graduate Students