Indian Grad Students in US Catch a Break with Tax Reform Campaign
The US decided not to tax universities’ tuition fee waiver: Here’s how a campaign by Indian and other students helped change their minds.
The US decided not to tax universities’ tuition fee waiver: Here’s how a campaign by Indian and other students helped change their minds.(Photo: The Quint)

Indian Grad Students in US Catch a Break with Tax Reform Campaign

It was over three years ago that I came to the US to further my passion – to do a PhD in Biology at Carnegie Mellon University. Little did I know my American experience wouldn’t just be running experiments in the lab and trying to solve some of the mysteries of science.

Almost two months ago, I, along with a colleague, received an email informing us of the proposed tax reform bill that was expected to be introduced in the US Congress. The email warned us of the adverse impact it would have on graduate students.

Most PhD and some Masters programs in the US are funded, ie: students enrolled in these programs get non-taxable tuition waivers. The bill had proposed to now treat tuition waivers provided by universities as taxable income, resulting in massive increases in tax liability for both graduate students, amounting to as much as an additional $10,000 per year in federal taxes – up to a 300% increase.

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An Insurmountable Financial Burden

According to the Institute of International Education and Open Doors 2017 Report, there were 1,86,267 Indian students who were studying in the US in the academic year 2016-2017. Over half of these students were graduate students, and the proposed bill would have adversely affected a significant proportion of them.

Many Indian students would have been left without the means to pay for this increased tax, as they are barred from working in the US. They would have had to drop out of their programs and return to India to prevent their lives from slipping into financial disarray. And many more would have to write off American universities – some of the world’s best – as destinations for pursuing their education.

Taxing of Fee Waivers Not Justified

But US universities too considered these provisions an affront to higher education. Graduate students play a key role in running these universities – by teaching undergraduate students, and undertaking important research work.

Provisions in the proposed tax bill would have targeted these very graduate students, forcing them to drop out of their programs, leading to losses for the universities.

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#ReworkTheReform Campaign Against GOP Tax Bill

Spurred into action, I co-led a national campaign, #ReworkTheReform, to highlight the adverse impacts of the bill. Not only were we joined by students across the US in this campaign, but numerous higher education groups, organisations and universities got on board.

We took the fight to social media, and encouraged students to reach out directly to their Congressional representatives and senators to advocate against the detrimental provisions of this bill. We held numerous meetings with officers of key GOP Congressional delegates in Washington DC, requesting that they drop these provisions.

Thousands of calls were made to congressional delegates by graduate students and their parents and supporters of higher education, asking them to oppose taxing of these tuition waivers. Students highlighted how the bill would severely limit the accessibility of higher education, leaving out poorer sections who could not afford to shoulder the additional burden.

What the students were asking for was not a luxury but a necessity, a safeguard that allowed them to stay in school and pursue graduation.

Without this safeguard, an entire generation of students, both from the US and across the globe, would not be able to pursue graduate education in the US. The Congressional delegates heard this message loud and clear. After about five weeks of toiling, our efforts paid off.

New Bill Gives Relief

The version of the bill that was recently passed continues to treat tuition waivers as non-taxable. This means that tens of thousands of Indian students who are currently pursuing graduation in the US can continue to do so the same as before.

Universities and colleges in the US will continue to remain accessible to thousands of students who wish to do research work and achieve scientific breakthroughs, or push the boundaries of human knowledge by asking tough questions.

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(Originally hailing from the city of Kapurthala in Punjab, Surya is currently a fourth-year PhD Candidate in Biological Sciences at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, US. He can be reached @suryad26. This is a personal blog and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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