Grad students in Philly, Newark plan to join nationwide walkout to protest GOP tax plan

The tax plan passed by the House could increase taxes on graduate students by thousands of dollars, when many make less than $20,000 a year.

Graduate students from Rutgers University and others in the Philadelphia region protested in front of U.S. Senator Pat Toomey's office on November 21.

Graduate students from Rutgers University and others in the Philadelphia region protested in front of U.S. Senator Pat Toomey's office on Nov. 21. (Alan Yu/WHYY)

Graduate students in Philadelphia and Newark, Delaware, are planning to join a nationwide walkout on Wednesday to protest the Republican tax plan, which could effectively raise their taxes.

Graduate students say this tax hike could discourage current and future students from doing the research that leads to new discoveries.

Brenda Salantes, a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania, spends a lot of her time in a lab studying treatments for HIV, the virus that can lead to AIDS. She worked for four years to save up enough money to come here. Now she gets a stipend and doesn’t have to pay tuition in exchange for teaching classes and doing research.

Under the U.S. House tax plan, she would be taxed on all the tuition that she’s not paying for, which could add up to $8,000 to her tax bill. More than half of all graduate students had adjusted gross incomes of $20,000 or less, according to 2011-12 federal data cited by the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities.

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Salantes said she comes from a low-income family, and even though she’s at school now, the extra tax burden would make it hard for her to focus on her work studying HIV.

“I would no longer feel that passion for my research as much as I would feel that fear that I wouldn’t be able to pay my rent, or that I wouldn’t be able to see my family at home in Hawaii, or that I wouldn’t be able to pay for my next meal,” she said. “That would be an overwhelming emotional burden that would prevent me from doing an experiment correctly, participating in a conference with other leaders in my field, and it would prevent many of us from completing our programs.”

Salantes said it would also discourage other low-income students from going to graduate school and doing research.

Graduate students from several universities in the Philadelphia region held signs to protest the GOP tax plan in front of U.S. Senator Pat Toomey's office.
Graduate students say people often don’t know they are the ones who do the lab work behind scientific discoveries, for a fraction of the salary they could get in private industry. (Alan Yu/WHYY)

That’s something some students are already discussing, said Surya Aggarwal, a doctoral student in biology at Carnegie Mellon University.

“I’ve heard students saying that they might actually drop out of graduate school if they’re just starting graduate school,” said Aggarwal. “I’ve heard undergraduates say that this will change their career trajectory going forward where they might not apply to graduate school.”

Aggarwal is also the chair of the advocacy board at the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students. He said he and some other students will meet members of Congress during the first week of December to share their concerns about the GOP tax plan.

Some school administrators have spoken out against the plan and encouraged students to do the same, including University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann and Penn State President Eric Barron.

So far, the Senate plan does not include the tax on tuition waivers, but both houses of Congress will have to come to a compromise on a final version.

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