Graduate students organize national walkout

Graduate students at USC pose with posters explaining why they oppose a proposed tax change that would cause students to be taxed for tuition exemptions. Photo courtesy of Grad Tax Walkout website.

Five USC graduate students have organized a national walkout on Wednesday to protest provisions that would affect higher education in the Republican-sponsored tax reform bill.

Over 50 campuses across 32 states have registered to walk in the Grad Tax Walkout at the time of publication, including Columbia University, Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania and UC Berkeley.

The provisions in the House of Representatives’ Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which are not included in a separate tax Senate tax bill, would count graduate and professional students’ waived tuition as income, allowing it to be taxed. Currently, many graduate students receive free tuition as part of their program, along with stipends they receive for serving as teaching assistants. If the current tax reform bill passes the Senate, both bills will go to conference, where provisions will be negotiated for the final bill.

“The [provisions] would make it prohibitively more expensive for people to get into higher education, even more so than it is now,” said Hannah Khoddam, a national organizer of the walkout. “I think a lot of people don’t really know what graduate students do, especially as it relates to other parts of society … For this movement, we wanted to draw attention to what graduate students offer beyond sitting in a room and taking classes.”

The bill would affect their professional training,” Khoddam said.  “Graduate students, work in labs, teach undergraduate students and provide external care in various medical centers.”

Khoddam and her fellow organizers, Nina Jhaveri, Marie Gillespie, Hannah Rasmussen and Miriam Rubenson, are all clinical psychology students pursuing a doctorate degree.

The five discussed the possibility of movement after a faculty clinical science meeting on Nov. 15, where concerns about the tax bill were raised. The idea evolved into a national walkout event, after they connected with experienced organizers from March for Science and Save Grad Ed, a group of six universities across the East Coast and Midwest region, according to Jhaveri.

“There are a vast number of students across a vast number of universities who are against this tax bill,” Jhaveri said. “Graduate students are the bedrock of innovation, of research, of technology, of the economy. And if [the tax bill affects] graduate students and future researchers in this manner, it’s threatening the very economy of the country.”

In addition to taxing tuition waivers, the bill also targets $5,250 of tax-free income faculty, undergraduates and graduate students receive. Students’ loan interest deduction is also at risk for repeal.

Although mainly graduate students have been vocal against the bill, it still holds implications for undergraduate students, according to David Schwartz, an associate professor of psychology.

“It’s not just graduate tuition that’s going to be taxed, but it’s also going to be interest on student loans,” Schwartz said. “So, an undergraduate [student] to get out of the University of Southern California with loans will now be paying tax on the interest.”

Rubenson, the local organizer of the walkout, hopes undergraduate students and staff will participate alongside graduate students.

“We want to call our senators, in California and for people who are out of state, call their home state senators, [to] get them to vote no on this tax bill,” Rubenson said.

In addition to the walkout, students will also be phone banking to key legislators.

“This isn’t a walkout to protest our administration, it’s a protest with our administration against this tax reform bill,” Gillespie said.

Both Rubenson and Gillespie expressed their gratitude for the support of the clinical psychology department and the USC administration. Despite University provisions that require student protests to be registered five weeks in advance, Rubenson said USC has supported their right to demonstrate.

The Office of the Provost has previously issued a letter stating its support for graduate students and emphasizing USC’s advocacy efforts as Congress debates tax reform.

“We are working in Washington, D.C. every day — along with other higher ed organizations — urging lawmakers to support our hard-working graduate students, staff, and families,” USC Provost Michael Quick said, in an email to the Daily Trojan. “We unequivocally back continued investment in American education as a highly-educated and highly-skilled workforce is critical for a better future for our country and for the world. Regardless of the outcome of this process, we will continue to support students and staff from all backgrounds and work to make educational opportunity as accessible as possible.”