UT graduate students protest low wages and tax bill

Graduate students at the University of Texas at Austin say a proposed tax bill could make higher education unaffordable for many middle and low income students. (Photo:Bettie Cross)

The tax bill passed by the U.S. House is coming under fire from graduate students at the University of Texas at Austin. They say it could make grad school unaffordable for middle and low income students.

Wednesday is the type of day that can dampen spirits and thin crowds. But at UT graduate students united under a canopy of umbrellas to talk about the value they bring to the Austin campus.

“We teach courses,” said graduate student Nick Bloom. “We grade papers. We work as tutors. The university would collapse without our labor.”

Bloom organized the protest to bring attention to a bill recently passed by the U.S. House that would tax waived tuition as income.

“This tax bill would make graduate school education so exclusive that only people who are independently wealthy to begin with could even afford to come to grad school,” said Bloom.

The tax bill would eliminate tax-free tuition waivers for graduate students.

“It would put me in a completely different tax bracket,” said graduate student Nina Sport.

Sport has done the math. She knows she owes $26,939 in student loans. She also knows she can't afford to pay taxes on her waived tuition.

“Right now I make less money than I did when I was 18 and I was waiting tables,” said Sport.

Sport works a minimum of 20 hours a week as an assistant instructor at UT. In exchange, she gets her tuition waived and earns a stipend of about $1,300 a month. The graduate student pays taxes on the stipend but not on the waived tuition. If the tax bill becomes law and tuition waivers are taxed as income, Sport says it will cost her an additional $300 a month in taxes. She knows to some people that may not seem like a lot, but to her it's life-changing.

“That $300 a month is actually the money that I need to feed myself, to eat, to do anything beyond pay my rent and my utilities,” said Sport.

Graduate students say they also need to be paid a living wage. They say too many are forced to take on additional jobs to cover the basic cost of living in Austin.