Public News Service SEATTLE - Cash-strapped graduate students in Washington state and across the country are watching the tax debate in Congress closely. A provision in the House GOP's bill to overhaul the tax code, which passed last week, would turn tuition waivers offered by universities into taxable income.
Most students work as teaching or research assistants in exchange for tuition breaks.
Sam Sumpter is financial secretary for UAW 4121, the union for academic student employees at the University of Washington. The union estimates this provision would increase student employees' tax burden by $5,000 a year at U.W. Sumpter says at that price, students either won't be able to finish their program or won't be able to afford basic necessities.
"We've had some people report that if waivers were to be taxed, then they would be able to afford food but basically nothing else," she laments. "So I certainly think it would have an impact on just daily life."
Sumpter says the House bill is many members' "primary concern." The Senate version of the tax bill does not include the proposal on tuition waivers. Senators could vote on their tax bill after Thanksgiving. Leaders in Congress and the White House say they are aiming to pass a bill by Christmas.
About 60 percent of students who receive waivers are working in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields, according to the Department of Education.
Karen Strickland, president of the American Federation of Teachers of Washington, calls it "illogical" to burden students in fields that many businesses and institutions are making efforts to boost. She says this proposal is an attack on higher learning.
"This really is a sign of the intention to continue to defund higher education, close down access to higher education, and basically undermine the entire institution of higher education, weakening the working and middle classes," she warns.
Roughly 145,000 graduate students nationwide receive these kinds of waivers, according to the American Council on Education.