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UB grad students protest low stipends, possible tax on tuition waivers

Efforts to win larger stipends for University at Buffalo graduate students took on a new urgency this week, as Congress began negotiating a federal tax plan that proposes taxing students on tuition waivers.

If the provision adopted by the House of Representatives stays in the tax overhaul bill, graduate students across the country will face hundreds and even thousands of dollars in new taxes on the value of the tuition fees universities waive for them to study toward a doctoral degree.

Tuition waivers have not been taxed before, but under the House bill, tuition waivers would be treated as income.

UB graduate students and administrators have been at odds over the stipend amounts awarded to students who teach and do research on behalf of the university while earning their advanced degrees. But both groups condemned the House measure, which was not included in a version of tax overhaul approved by the Senate over the weekend. The measure, though, could still be part of a reconciliation bill that heads to the desk of President Trump.

Graham L. Hammill, vice provost for graduate education and dean of the Graduate School at UB, expressed concern that the measure would force graduate students to spend a significant amount of their stipends on paying taxes. And if the new tax goes through, it could force departments at UB to take on fewer graduate students, potentially reducing the university's research output and leading to lower undergraduate enrollments, he added.

Tuition for in-state UB graduate students this year is $10,870, which is relatively low compared with private institutions and some other public universities. Still, any amount of new tax would hurt graduate students who are scraping by to earn a doctoral degree.

"For us, it really is a question of bottom line. Another couple thousand dollars would tip the balance of many graduate students at UB," said Willis McCumber, a second year doctoral student in English.

Third-year student Sean Pears called it an "incredibly cynical and destructive proposal" that would force students either to leave graduate school or take out student loans to pay taxes.

UB graduate students already were in the midst of a campaign to bring a minimum living stipend to departments across the university when the GOP-led House came up with the plan to tax tuition waivers.

UB grad students seek pay boost with rally for 'living stipend'

About 65 graduate students on Monday afternoon rallied in Capen Hall, the university administration building. It was the third demonstration this semester pressing university officials to improve stipend rates to at least $21,300. Graduate students shared stories of working two, three and four jobs to make ends meet. One student said she lost 20 pounds each summer in graduate school because her $11,500 stipend "meant going hungry" during those months. Another student said he was on Medicaid because he couldn't afford UB's health care.

Former student Leslie Nickerson carried a sign that read: "UB Drop-out Couldn't Afford Child Care." Nickerson took a leave of absence from her studies to care for her young daughter, Zoe. But she isn't sure she'd ever be able to return with stipend levels so low.

"It puts a lot of us in a position of not being able to finish," she said.

Some students said administrators have an outdated perspective of what it costs to live in Buffalo. Pears said he's seen promotional materials from the English department claiming students can find a one-bedroom apartment for $400 or $500 per month.

"That's not true. If it was true, then our stipends would be fine, as they were 15 years ago," he said.

"Buffalo is getting more and more expensive," added Elif Ege, a doctoral student in gender studies. "But if you check the university website the cost of attendance has diminished, which is impossible."

Ege pays $500 per month for rent and lives with two roommates. She does not own a car and gets by on a stipend of $13,000. She can't make more money by getting an off-campus job because she's an international student from Turkey and her visa won't allow it.

The university awards stipends as part of a funding package for graduate students that also includes full tuition waivers and health care benefits. In exchange, the graduate students teach introductory courses or do research for up to 20 hours per week during a semester.

University administrators said UB invests heavily in its doctoral students, and many departments have improved stipends over the years. The university's average stipend grew from $13,183 in 2012 to $17,343 in 2016, putting UB in the middle of the pack among its peer public universities in the Association of American Universities.

"We are making progress and we're proud of the fact that we're making progress," Hammill said.

Still, he added, "progress has been uneven across departments."

Hammill said many of the protesters were likely from departments that haven't caught up with national averages for stipend levels. The English department, for example, has been heavily represented in the demonstrations. The department's base stipend is about $14,000 per year, below average. The department is actively engaged in discussions to take in fewer graduate teaching assistants and pay higher stipends, as much as $19,000, Hammill said.

But the tuition waiver tax threatens to offset any stipend growth, especially for international students, who make up nearly a quarter of all graduate students at UB.

Natalia Pamula, a comparative literature doctoral student from Poland, said she would advise international students against pursuing their graduate degree in the U.S.

"I would never come here if I would have to pay taxes on my tuition waiver. Never," she said.

If the House measure becomes law, Ege said, it will be "the end of international students" in the U.S.

"For us, it would be impossible to pay," Ege said.

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