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Local Professors Warn: GOP Tax Plan Could Put Graduate Education 'Out of Reach'

Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen will retire next year.
Miami Herald
Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen will retire next year.

Local university professors are pushing against the Republican tax overhaul that’s moving through Congress, saying the legislation will irreparably harm graduate education.

Three professors from Florida International University and a peer from the University of Miami visited Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen’s office earlier this week to share their concerns about the plan.

Ros-Lehtinen ended up voting for the bill when it came up on the  House floor on Thursday, joining most other Republicans. All Democrats voted against it, along with some Republicans from states like New York where state income taxes are high, because the plan would get rid of deductions for state and local taxes.

But higher education leaders have another issue with the proposal: It hits graduate students especially hard.

The legislation would get rid of a tax exemption for tuition waivers. The practical impact would double or triple the taxable income of graduate students, who work for universities as undergraduate teachers or researchers.

“Our programs will be decimated if this goes forward,” Tracy Devine Guzmán, who directs the doctoral program in Latin American studies at UM, told Ros-Lehtinen’s chief of staff during the meeting. The professors invited WLRN to attend.

Joining Devine Guzmán were the three from FIU: Okezi Otovo, who directs graduate studies and teaches history; another history professor, Dan Royles; and American literature professor Martha Schoolman. The educators  waited an hour for the meeting to start because Chief of Staff Maytee Sanz was late. She said she’d been caught in traffic.

Graduate students earn meager pay: about $15,000 to $20,000 a year before taxes and health insurance. They also get their tuition waived. The new legislation would tax them on the cost of the tuition as if it were income they earned.

So a UM student earning $20,000 and getting a tuition waiver for $40,000 would see his taxable income triple: from $20,000 to $60,000.

Despite the tuition waivers, students still have to pay university fees. Public university graduate students have, for years, asked the Florida Legislature to waive these fees, which can cost hundreds of dollars and are sometimes a prohibitive burden.

The professors also noted: Graduate students are not allowed to work outside of their universities unless they obtain special permission. So most wouldn’t be able to get another job to help pay for the new expense.

Otovo said it’s unfair to tax graduate students as if they were earning a middle-class income. It’s hard enough for them to make do with so little pay in an expensive city like Miami, especially when some of them have dependents to support, she argued. If the bill becomes law, she said many graduate students would have to take out thousands of dollars in loans to pay their taxes.

“These are not people who are somehow over-privileged … but quite the opposite,” Otovo said. “To increase their tax burden will put graduate education out of reach.”

The professors pointed out FIU is majority-minority and serves many who are low-income, first-generation college students and have been underserved by the U.S. education system. Making graduate school more expensive for them would mean, in many cases, they don’t attend. That would make the teaching force less representative of the student body.

And the change wouldn’t affect only graduate students; university staff members who utilize tuition waivers for themselves or their children would also be subject to more taxes.

At the time, Sanz said her boss was still undecided.

But, she said, Ros-Lehtinen is a supporter of higher education and would take into consideration any ways the bill might hurt colleges. The retiring Republican congresswoman is an alumna of both FIU and UM, Miami’s main public and private universities, respectively.

“She's still looking at it. She's not a yes. She’s not a no,” Sanz said then.

As it turned out, she was a yes.

Copyright 2020 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Jessica Bakeman reports on K-12 and higher education for WLRN, south Florida's NPR affiliate. While new to Miami and public radio, Jessica is a seasoned journalist who has covered education policymaking and politics in three state capitals: Jackson, Miss.; Albany, N.Y.; and, most recently, Tallahassee.
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