UCF students protest taxation of graduate tuition waivers

Nick Leon, an undergraduate physics student at UCF, adds his name to the #SaveGradEd banner. UCF "Save Grad Ed" rally, Nov. 20, 2017. Photo by Kristen Wong.

Chants of “Hey hey, ho ho, this tax plan has got to go” filled the air as UCF students protested President Donald Trump’s new tax plan at a “Save Grad Ed” rally near the John C. Hitt Library Monday afternoon. 

The tax plan, which was passed through the U.S. House of Representatives last Thursday, will tax graduate tuition waivers as income, which are currently not subjected to income taxes, according to Section 25(A) of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.

With the help of a megaphone, UCF graduate student and organizer of the rally Brian Zamarripa Roman urged students to sign a petition to help stop the proposed tax plan.

Tuition waivers allow graduate students such as research and teaching assistants to do research in return for the university waiving some or all of their tuition.

If tuition waivers are counted as income, they would be taxed on students’ tuition and their income, which could double or even triple their taxes, according to the American Chemical Society.

But the effects of the tax plan reach beyond just graduate students, Zamarripa Roman, a UCF physics graduate researcher, said.

“If you’re an undergrad and are thinking of going to grad school, this will affect where you’re going and if you’re going at all,” he said.

Almost 25 student protesters stood around a table that held a “#SaveGradEd” sign at the UCF rally. The Twitter hashtag is a reference to universities across the nation including Ohio State University and the University of Maryland that are also rallying against the tax plan.

UCF protesters’ held signs depicting messages such as “Tuition is NOT Income” and “Call your Senator” as they chanted “What do we want? Education. When do we want it? Now!”

Graduate students at the UCF Graduate Student Association (GSA) meeting last Wednesday said their annual salaries were $14,000, which is more than $1,000 below the national average minimum salary, according to the Center for Poverty Research.

UCF students protested the passing of the final bill for fear of potentially unaffordable taxes.

UCF graduate student Chance Barrett receives tuition waivers for his research in physics. Barrett said he makes about $22,000 per year, but if he is taxed on tuition, he said he would have to pay up to $700 in taxes. 

If this happens, he said he may only finish his master’s.

“That seems like that was the response of a lot of Ph.D. physicists I was talking to, ‘Let me just get my master’s and duck out,’ ” Barrett said.

Zamarripa Roman said paying additional taxes on top of high tuition prices will limit school choices for students.

“Not all undergrads are going to have plans to stay at UCF,” Zamarripa Roman said. “Now they’re going to be conservative in what schools they’ll go to.”

Zamarripa Roman said he believes this will cause a decline in graduate school attendance and consequently slow the progress of current technological advancements.

Nick Leon, an undergraduate physics student at UCF, attended the rally as one of the few undergrads who organized the event.

As a part of the Student Labor Action Project, a Registered Student Organization that promotes fair access to higher education and employment, Leon said the rally was a good opportunity to combine his passion for activism and education. 

He said he’s also worried about his academic future. 

“I do plan on going to grad school at some point, so I just want to make sure I have an opportunity to do that and not just be bogged down in debt and have to deal with those circumstances later on,” Leon said.

UCF student Krishanna Newton mentors young adults who were formerly in foster care through the Road to Independence Program, which aims to help participants develop the skills necessary for independent living. 

Although Newton is graduating this spring and won’t be affected by the bill, she said many of her mentees might not pursue graduate programs if the tax plan takes effect. 

“If I’m already paying for undergraduate and if I have to pay for graduate school too, then I wouldn’t even consider it,” Newton said.

Zamarripa Roman said although the tax reform won’t be as drastic at UCF compared to more expensive schools such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.), it will still be significant. 

“Overall, it’s a pretty big effect,” Zamarripa Roman said. “People are going to definitely see 50 percent increase in taxes here at UCF.”