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Hundreds Flood Coffman Plaza to Defend Graduate Students, Oppose Tuition Tax

Crowd Marches on Northrop Plaza; Speakers Call on President Kaler for Support
November 30, 2017

At noon on Wednesday, as thousands joined the National Grad Tax Walkout to oppose the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, hundreds flooded Coffman Plaza in support of graduate students at the University of Minnesota. Cheering and chanting, a crowd of teaching assistants, research assistants, other graduate students, and supporters from across the Twin Cities marched to Northrop Plaza. The event was organized py the all-volunteer group UMN Grads United.

"We are calling on U.S. representatives and senators from Minnesota to defend and support graduate students and graduate education by working to kill the tax bill in Congress," said Kristiana Wright, a graduate student in communication studies who emceed the event. "ln addition, we are calling on the University administration-President Eric Kaler and Dean of Graduate Education Scott Lanyon-to take concrete steps to better the wages and working conditions of TAs, RAs, and other graduate workers whose labor is essential to this University."

This month, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a tax plan that would count graduate tuition waivers as taxable income. lf passed into law, the tuition tax would triple or quadruple the tax burden for graduate students at the U, forcing many to consider dropping out of school.

Snigdha Kumar, an international graduate student in sociology, was disappointed with the administration's response. "The only action the University of Minnesota has taken so far is to ask graduate students to call their representatives. This is a lukewarm response that shirks responsibility, and assumes that all students have representatives to call," she said. 

Kumar expressed concern about the potential impact of the tuition tax on international students. "lnternational students also already live in far more precarious conditions because of having borne the costs of moving to the U.S., paying higher mandatory fees, receiving higher tuition waivers, saving up to travel home at least once a year, and sending money home," she said. 

"By walking out, international graduate students want to send a strong message to the administration to acknowledge the disproportionate impact the tax bill will have on the international students, and to start addressing the existing working conditions that will make it impossible for international graduate students to bear the burden of the tax bill," Kumar added.

Speakers saw the tuition tax as part of a larger trend of unaffordability in graduate education. "lt is important that we remind ourselves that this federal tax bill did not emerge from a vacuum, but it is a part of an ongoing process of commercializing higher education in the United States," said Oanh Nguyen, a graduate student in political science. "By prioritizing efficiency over equity, many graduate students are left in a precarious position coping with high debt coming out of college, low stipends, and high student fees. lt is this precarity - which disproportionately affects marginalized students - that makes the impact of the new federal tax bill so strong."

Other speakers spoke to the importance of graduate students walking out. "By choosing to stage a temporary walkout from our work, we are highlighting the serious threat posed by this tax plan," said Alex Steele, a graduate student in history. "The symbolic absence from our classrooms, labs, and other workplaces reflects the grim reality: a tax on tuition waivers will destroy our ability to continue as workers at the University of Minnesota. We take this serious step of walking out to call for the preservation and protection of higher education as we know it."

Grads United will issue an official statement after a membership vote on Wednesday evening.

Grads United is an all-volunteer group of graduate teaching assistants, research assistants, and PhD fellows from across the University of Minnesota. lt advocates for the needs and interests of graduate workers, and organizes to amplify their voices and build cottective power for a more equitable University. 

Speakers: Kristiana Wright, Department of Communication Studies (emcee); Tracey Blasenheim, Department of Political Science Oanh Nguyen, Department of Political Science; Snigdha Kumar, Department of Sociology; Jake Grossman, Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior; Claire Thiele, Teamsters Local 320; Mary Pogatshnik, MN Academics United; Alex Steele, Department of History

Quick Facts on How the Tuition Tax Would lmoact UMN Graduate Students

Under the House plan: 

  • The average graduate assistant would never see about 25 percent of their income* 
  • Those earning the CLA base stipend would never see about 32 percent of their income* 
  • lnternational graduate students would be disproportionately impacted by tax hikes

Graduate assistants (U-wide): 

  • Average pay: $21,958 
  • Federal tax burden would more than triple** 
  • From $1219.95 / 5.56% (current system) 
  • To $3727.68 / 16.98% (House Plan)

CLA graduate assistants: 

  • Base pay: $17,500
  • Federal tax burden would more than quadruple**
  • From $685 / 3.91% (current system)
  • To $3192 .72 I 18.24% (House Plan)

UMN graduate tuition (fulltime): $16,728 (resident) or $25,884 (non-resident)

*lncludes rough estimates of state taxes, mandatory fees, PLUS federal taxes under the House plan

**Calculations based on single filing status, no dependents, using maximum standard deductions and education credits for each plan, and excluding the value of health plans