Curious and full of optimism, aspiring scientists arrive at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center to take part in interviews, with the hopes of being admitted to the Neuroscience Graduate Program. These interviewees are asked a simple question: “Why do you want to pursue neuroscience research?” One person wants to discover a cure for Parkinson’s disease; another wants to uncover better treatment options for opioid addiction; others seek to further develop our understanding of how the brain works. While the answers vary, the underlying desire is the same: to improve the human condition through research and innovation.
Each year, thousands of students like these enter into research-intensive graduate programs to earn a PhD and become part of a highly educated work force that will make significant scientific advancements to treat our most devastating diseases. These programs, on average, take five and a half to six years to complete and are filled with demanding requirements. On top of maintaining a high grade point average, almost all graduate programs in the biomedical sciences require students to perform original research, publish findings and help teach classes.
In exchange for research, most graduate students receive a small stipend to supplement their income and a waiver that covers the cost of tuition. This tax-free tuition waiver prevents graduate students from undertaking repressive student loan debt, while providing incentive to recruit and retain junior researchers and teachers.
The H.R. 1 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act passed recently by the House would repeal a provision in the tax code that makes these tuition waivers tax free, greatly increasing the tax burden faced by many graduate students. Essentially, students would be taxed on money they never received in the first place.
The bill does propose a temporary increase to the individual standard deduction, but that is anticipated to be inadequate to cover the increase in taxable income graduate students would see, resulting in a dramatic reduction in livable income of current graduate students.
The House tax reform bill would also revoke students’ ability to deduct student loan interest from their taxes and repeal two tax credits for students. Removing these popular tax provisions will increase the cost of obtaining a college degree and undoubtedly deter students from pursuing an advanced degree. In the long run, the decrease in the availability of researchers and individuals with highly sought-after technical skills will stagnate our country’s scientific advancement and economic development.
The just-passed Senate tax reform bill does not eliminate these popular student tax benefits, so perhaps they will remain when the two versions are reconciled. However, both the Senate and House bills would introduce a new excise tax on endowments of private colleges and universities, which are critical tools for universities to support scholarships, academic programs and capital improvements. A new tax on universities, either private or public, will diminish their capacity to educate our society.
As the House and Senate come together to negotiate the differences in their bills and decide on the final tax reform legislation, it is imperative that they reject these provisions that would increase the cost of obtaining a degree, decrease our workforce of highly skilled workers and reduce our nation’s competitiveness internationally.
Please join me in contacting your members of Congress to ask them to oppose tax provisions that harm students and jeopardize scientific advancement and to instead enact legislation that spurs innovation and research as a means of fostering America’s economic development.
Ryan Makinson recently completed his PhD in neuroscience at the University of Cincinnati and is the graduate student trustee on the University of Cincinnati Board of Trustees.