Graduate Students Speak Out on Proposed Federal Tax Plan

By Stefanie Sidortsova | Published

A Michigan Tech Marine Corps veteran explains why the proposed plan could spell disaster.

Honor. Courage. Commitment. They’re the core values of a Marine, the values Jeff Brookins lived by during his years in the U.S. Marine Corps, and the values he continues to live by today.

Brookins is pursuing a master of science within the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. His research group focuses on biodegradable metals for medical devices that could save lives, like cardiovascular stents that open up blocked arteries and safely absorb into the body once their work is done.

Because Brookins is a veteran, his undergraduate degree—earned at Michigan Technological University—was paid for by the GI Bill, but his graduate degree is funded differently.

“My group’s research is primarily funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). As a research assistant, there’s a small monthly stipend, and tuition is paid for under an educational allotment.”

Michigan Tech's Graduate Student Government participated in a nationwide walkout on Nov. 29 to support higher education and show how vital graduate students are to society.
Michigan Tech's Graduate Student Government participated in a nationwide walkout on Nov. 29 to support higher education and show how vital graduate students are to society.

When a graduate student works as a research assistant, the University covers the cost of the student’s tuition and that money is not counted as taxable income; in exchange, the student performs research relevant to their work. Under the new Republican-backed tax plan that’s making its way through Congress, tuition waivers would be taxed as regular income and put graduate school out of reach for many, if not most, graduate students on Michigan Tech’s campus.

“We’re an easy target,” Brookins says. “The general thought is that graduate students are young people in their 20s who spend all day in a lab and aren’t going to mount a protest or campaign. We’re an easy group to pick on. Unfortunately, it’s like closing down a library; everyone can see that something is being done but, at the end of the day, it doesn’t save much money in the budget.”

Brookins partner, Jennifer Dunn, is also a graduate student. She’s earning her PhD through Michigan Tech’s Department of Social Sciences, and is funded through the National Science Foundation (NSF). If the proposed tax bill becomes law, it will hit their household doubly hard.

Dunn says the tax bill “discourages students from pursuing a graduate level education and devalues it. By enacting this bill, higher education institutions are likely to see a decrease in graduate enrollment and consequently tuition dollars, an impact that these institutions can’t afford when they are already experiencing budgetary cuts from the state and federal governments.”

Brookins has voiced his concerns about funding for education before. Earlier this year, he traveled with his department to Washington, D.C., to speak with federal lawmakers about preserving the budgets for NIH and NSF.

“I have friends on NSF grants—they’re here solely because of that funding. If their tax burden increases, they’ll be out of options. There’s a lot of good work taking place on this campus that would be halted by this bill."

It brings back to mind the values Brookins has lived by for most of his adult life.

“Honor. Courage. Commitment. If Congress lived by those values,” he says, “we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 54 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.

Last Modified 3:19 p.m. December, 27 2017