For OU Grad Students, Taxing Tuition Waivers As Income Could Mean Putting Life On Hold
Siddhesh Wagh wants to get married, but he’s worried federal tax reform will get in the way. The fifth-year doctoral student in the math department at the University of Oklahoma makes about $16,000 in exchange for ten months of teaching a year. It’s enough to get by, but saving is still a struggle, even with the university waiving about $12,000 of his tuition costs.
“It was only because OU was offering me a tuition waiver and scholarship that I could afford to come to the U.S. and study here. Without that, it would have been impossible for me to study,” he said.
Like other graduate students around the country, Wagh could lose money if Congress passes a Republican tax reform plan that would treat tuition waivers as taxable income. He was among about 100 students at a demonstration on the university’s Norman campus on Wednesday afternoon, part of a national walkout protesting the tax plan.
Some carried signs as they marched around the university’s South Oval, shouting, “Defend, don’t defund!” and other slogans. For many, the chief concern was whether they could provide for themselves, their families and their futures if the plan passes.
Wagh said the additional taxes might mean putting off his marriage and staying in graduate school for longer, so he can support himself while he looks for a job.
“Even a thousand dollars more a year is a huge deal for a graduate student who can barely save about $3,000 or $4,000 a year,” he said.
Alise Dabdoub, a first-year doctoral student studying psychology at OU, helped organize the protest. She makes about $15,000 for nine months of teaching and works at an internship to make ends meet. Her tuition waiver of about $16,000 a year would double her taxable income, if counted under the new plan.
Dabdoub and her husband want to have children. She believes the new tax plan will move them further from that goal, especially as they work to pay off $70,000 in student loan debt.
“It’s hard. We’re trying. I think we’re doing alright, but if this were to take effect I don’t think we could afford to pay on our loans anymore,” she said.
Math Ph.D student Jordan Wiebe is also waiting to start a family with his wife. He used to be the only income earner for his household, and just recently quit his second job as an information technology contractor for OU. He receives about $17,000 as a teaching stipend and about $7,000 as a tuition waiver.
Wiebe is apprehensive about the tax plan’s potential impact on his financial future. And he hasn’t seen much support from the university.
“The university as a whole, I don’t think has come out and said ‘this is not a good thing.’ The fact there’s not that much support as of yet for graduate students in this tax situation is really disconcerting for me,” Wiebe said.
There are 6,212 graduate students at OU this semester. According to the OU Graduate College, about 1,850 graduate assistants receive tuition waivers from the university.
“The university continues to follow related legislative developments closely and their potential effects on our students,” said an OU spokesman in an email.
The U.S. Senate could vote on the tax plan this week. For now, Wiebe and his wife will keep waiting.
“I don’t know if it would be a wise decision at this point to move forward with having kids, knowing that I could be paying thousands more in tax every year. That’s money that literally would be food or would be nice clothes or would be healthcare,” he said.
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