Universities balance their budgets on the backs of graduate students. In a way, we sign up for years of living paycheck-to-paycheck, working hard to make ends meet. The minimum salary for a full-time graduate teaching assistant at KU is $15,500 — that’s about 129% of the federal poverty level, if you’re a single adult with no children. We know that: for the most part, we accept it, out of love and passion for our areas of study, or the desire to be a teacher, or for the hope of better job prospects in the future.
In exchange for our underpaid labor, the University waives our tuition. This is not so much a perk as a way of keeping public education accessible to those who are not independently wealthy. It is not income, but Congressional Republicans seem to be confused on that point.
The current tax reform plan passed by the House would increase the taxes that graduate students need to pay by counting our tuition waivers as income. A GTA, for example, who works in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences might see their taxable income increase to over $27,000 ($11,400 for 12 credits a year) and their tax bill increase from about $560 to $1,470 by one estimate. GRAs in Education ($17,592 for 18 credits a year) or Business ($21,245) can look forward to even steeper hikes.
The motto of the Graduate Teaching Assistants Coalition, “KU works because we do” is a statement of fact. Graduate students teach classes in the first- and second-year core programs. We grade papers, tutor, crunch data, manage research journals, edit our professors’ and advisors’ work. We pull late hours in labs, offices, and class rooms. We get paid for ten to twenty hours of labor, even when our duties routinely exceed that. On top of that, we are expected to juggle our classwork, research, and traveling for conferences. Many of us also have to balance a second job or freelance work to supplement our meager income.
We can’t eat, pay rent, buy health insurance — utterly inadequate health insurance — or pay campus fees with money that we never see. Redefining tuition waivers as income will make graduate programs inaccessible to many of us. Fewer people will finish their degrees, or continue into PhD programs. Fewer applicants will mean that the overall program will be less competitive.
What will the University do when its main labor force dries up? How does KU plan to attract and retain qualified graduate students when they have to pay for the privilege of performing underpaid and underappreciated labor?
GTAC is calling on members of the KU community to contact Senators Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran and urge them to vote against taxing graduate students on money they never see. This whole tax reform bill is a bad faith effort on the part of Republicans to give the richest in the country a tax break at the expense of the middle and working-class, and will have long-reaching effects over the next decade: eroding Medicaid, increasing the deficit, and raising insurance premiums. GTAC’s parent union, the American Federation of Teachers — Kansas, is planning a day of action on November 29, in coordination with other efforts across the country. If you are interested in joining, please contact GTAC at our website or Facebook. There’s currently a planned public rally against the bill happening on Wescoe Beach on 11/29.
Should this bill pass, GTAC calls on the Kansas Board of Regents to immediately reduce graduate tuition rates. Public education should be equally accessible to all, regardless of their income. To expect graduate students to take home less money for our labor — to pay extra just to do the University’s grunt work — discourages qualified students from pursuing their degrees, and lowers the quality of the program by not being competitive or equitable.
Before it comes to that, though, tell your Senators, and have your family and friends do the same: tuition waivers are NOT income. Don’t give the rich a cut of our paychecks.