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College & Career

Pitt grad students to join tax protest Wednesday at Sen. Pat Toomey's office

Debra Erdley
| Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2017, 12:03 p.m.

Graduate students and faculty from the University of Pittsburgh will march on Sen. Pat Toomey's office Wednesday to protest the provisions of the sweeping tax bill that they say could rive up the cost of higher education.

Members of the Graduate Student Organizing Committee of the USW and Pitt students will deliver letters to the Republican senator, urging him to keep provisions passed by the House of Representatives out of the final version of the tax bill. A group spokeswoman said the students plan to rally at Toomey's Grant St. office at noon, Wednesday, Dec. 6.

Although the Senate version of the tax bill did not tax waivers that cover the cost of tuition for graduate teaching and research assistants, the House version of the bill did. The House bill also proposed to tax tuition waivers for faculty children as income and to end deductions for the payment of interest on student loans.

Graduate students across the country have been protesting the House plan, saying it would radically increase the amount students pay in taxes and jeopardize their ability to conduct research and earn advanced degrees.

Lawmakers now must reconcile the two bills.

Pitt graduate students, who are in the midst of a union organizing campaign at the university, worry that the House Republican tax plan will drastically increase higher education costs.

Beth Shaaban, a research assistant at Pitt is on track to earn her PhD in epidemiology this spring after five years of study. She tapped a tuition waiver as a Pitt employee and attended school part-time to earn a master's degree in public health before moving on the epidemiology program where she is paid a $21,000 a year stipend and receives a tuition waiver valued at $26,000 a year.

Shaaban said she might have had to rethink her plan to pursue a career researching cognitive disorders such as Alzheimer's disease, had the House tax proposals been law when she began her graduate studies

“It definitely would have changed my calculus as to whether it was worthwhile and doable for me to return to school,” she said.

Although Shaaban is nearing the end of her education, she's worried about those who are at the beginning or midway through their studies.

Shaaban said friends who are graduate students from other nations and can't obtain student loans here without an American co-signer, are considering transferring to programs in Canada or Europe should the House proposals become law,

Pitt Chancellor Patrick Gallagher is among university leaders who have advocated against the proposed changes to tax laws affecting higher education.

“I am deeply concerned by these proposed changes, which would be detrimental to the entire Pitt community. The changes would increase the University's operating costs, limit charitable giving to the University, and create serious consequences for the future of the world-class research conducted on our campus,” Gallagher said in a statement. He also urged members of the Pitt community to speak out on the issues.

While advocates for colleges and universities welcomed the changes in the Senate bill passed Dec. 2, they said provisions still in that bill also could have adverse impacts on higher education.

The American Council on Education said changes in the standard deduction and a cap on state and local tax deductions could adversely affect university fund raising, while proposed changes to provisions regarding tax exempt bonds could increase the cost of large infrastructure projects on college campuses.

Debra Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com or via Twitter @deberdley_trib

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