Tax policy is not sexy. Seemingly the exclusive concern of policymakers and political junkies, changes to the federal tax code seem distant from the everyday concerns of college students like us, some of whom have never seen a tax return. But as the House and Senate consider major revisions to our country’s tax policy, we must care about this otherwise niche issue. In reality, Congress’ action on tax reform holds weighty consequences for our own lives and educations, and our engagement with the issue should reflect the gravity of these consequences.
As conscientious and responsible citizens, we should oppose the tax bills on a number of grounds, not least of which is the fact that the Senate bill would add nearly one trillion dollars to the federal budget deficit within the next decade, while offering generous tax cuts for America’s wealthiest citizens and most lucrative corporations and increasing taxes on some middle-class families.
But as students, we must oppose the bill on two more specific grounds. The graduate programs many of us aspire to attend after we graduate from Bowdoin will become much more expensive if the House enacts its proposal to tax graduate tuition waivers. Presently, many universities waive the cost of a graduate student’s tuition if they also conduct research or teach courses. Under the existing tax code, these waivers are not considered as taxable income, so that graduate students, who often subsist on meager stipends, do not pay exorbitantly high taxes.
The House bill would overturn this exemption, allowing the waivers to be considered taxable income. In doing so, the House bill would drastically increase the tax burden of graduate students, in many instances placing graduate education completely out of financial reach for qualified students. Even more egregiously, this tax would disproportionately prevent students from demographics that are already underrepresented in higher-ed—particularly students of color and low-income students—from entering academia, thus further homogenizing graduate programs.
Secondly, we should oppose the provisions in both the House and Senate bills to tax university endowments at a rate of 1.4 percent. Although the endowments of private institutions like Bowdoin are indisputably enormous compared with the endowments of public institutions, these endowments allow American colleges and universities to create and serve socioeconomically, racially and geographically diverse student bodies. Education is meant to be our country’s great equalizer, and although private institutions of higher education in the United States still have a long way to go before they can fulfill this mission, this tax would invariably signify a step away from this goal.
With the House already having passed its bill and the Senate planning to vote on its version as early as today, the timeframe for action is shrinking. Maine’s Senator Susan Collins, who is currently undecided on the Senate bill, holds one of the deciding votes if (or, more likely, when) the Senate votes on the final bill. Call her. Email her. Send her carrier pigeons.
When Senator Collins spoke at Bowdoin last fall, she said that “Liberal arts colleges are well suited to lead the way in [a] renewal of American community: a sense that we care for one another, a sense of tolerance, empathy, personal responsibility, individual freedom—those are core American values.” Faced with an intolerant, harsh and irresponsible tax bill, let’s prove her right.
This editorial represents the majority view of the Bowdoin Orient’s editorial board, which is comprised of Rachael Allen, Anjulee Bhalla, Harry DiPrinzio, Sarah Drumm, Ian Ward and Allison Wei.