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Congress’s proposed tax bill would undermine STEM and accelerate inequality

You think it’s been a long time since we started talking about finding a cure for cancer? Be prepared to keep waiting.

Paige Waltz, digital media coordinator for Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, preps the podium where a House vote will take place while photographers gather around with cameras.
Paige Waltz, digital media coordinator for Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) prepares signage as the House votes on the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act in the Rayburn Room at the U.S. Capitol November 16, 2017, in Washington, D.C.
Chip Somodevilla / Getty

I’ve called my elected officials — Sen. Lindsey Graham, Sen. Tim Scott and Rep. Joe Wilson — so frequently this past week that their aides all know my name and my story. But this is not just my story. It’s the story of the American Dream and how close we’ve come to killing it.

Congress is on the verge of passing a tax plan that could undermine our university system and dramatically widen the gap between rich and poor in our country. The current version of the bill — known as the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act — that was passed by the House of Representatives last Thursday includes a provision that removes financial incentives that allow graduate students to work in exchange for free classes, and taxes tuition waivers as if they were actual income.

The effects of this ill-considered legislation aren’t hypothetical for me; I’m one of tens of thousands of middle- and working-class grad students who would be forced to abandon their studies if this bill becomes law.

As a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, I spend 60 to 80 hours a week conducting research, on top of the challenging course load that I take toward earning my degree. Many of my peers also teach classes, grade homework assignments and coordinate workshops, in addition to their lab work and course loads. In exchange for this effort, MIT pays me $2,853 per month, covers my health insurance and waives my tuition.

My fiancé — who is also an MIT grad student with an undergraduate degree from a public university — earns a $3,600 monthly stipend. After we’re married in December, our gross combined income will be $77,436 a year. That may sound like a lot, but cost-of-living calculators estimate that a single person needs $3,700 a month, after taxes, to live here in Cambridge, Mass. (Of course, many Americans get by with far less; TCJA would hurt them, too, by eliminating deductions for basics like student-loan interest and medical expenses.)

If we were paying for our MIT classes, my fiancé and I would rack up $100,000 in tuition debt each year. Under the current tax system, about $7,500 of our income goes toward taxes. Under the new tax bill, our tuition waivers count as income, so instead of paying taxes on $77,436, we’d look like a couple who earns $177,436 each year, and face a tax bill of more than $30,000. This keeps me awake at night — and not just because of the obvious personal finance issues. Frankly, all Americans should be losing sleep over the unintended consequences of this misguided tax scheme.

If TCJA passes, my fiancé and I would be forced to drop out of grad school; we could not afford to live in Cambridge on $46,000 a year. But we’re just two people out of hundreds of thousands of grad students who would be affected. TCJA would decimate the population of American graduate students, and the impact on tech-related fields would be particularly dire. The American Council on Education reports that 57 percent of waiver recipients are graduate students in science, technology, engineering and math disciplines.

The effects on American innovation would be devastating. Graduate students make up the vast majority of researchers at both private and public institutions in the United States. According to Wired, fewer than 10 percent of PhD candidates in STEM fields rely primarily on their own money to pay for grad school. Think it’s been a long time since we started talking about finding a cure for cancer? Be prepared to keep waiting.

Of course, there would always be a few students wealthy enough to bankroll their studies. Powerful, privileged families — who already hold a disproportionate amount of influence in our society — would gain even greater influence, as well as increased control over scholarly research. Ambiguous agendas could be pushed to further weaponize science; knowledge and education would become currency for an elite few.

My parents are public school teachers who worked their way up from poverty, having met as residents of the Thornwell Home for Children in Clinton, SC. I graduated fifth in my class from the STEM magnet program at Dutch Fork High School in Columbia, SC, one of the best in the country. I was accepted to both Duke University and Columbia University, as well as other highly competitive schools. But, instead, I enrolled at the University of South Carolina, where I was fortunate to receive a full scholarship for my undergraduate studies. By forgoing an elite bachelor’s degree program, I allowed my parents to continue to save for their own retirement and minimized the possibility of massive student loan debt.

As an undergraduate, I carried a double major — mathematics and computer science — to guarantee my job security. While I earned my degree, I founded programs to teach underprivileged kids to code. I conducted important research to help solve real-world problems, like improving algorithms for self-driving cars. I built a mobile app to demonstrate the disproportionate effects of my university’s expansion on surrounding poor, African-American communities.

My hard work paid off: I was accepted to the MIT Media Lab for grad school — the world’s best institution in my field. At MIT, my study group researches the effects of artificial intelligence on society. We’ve explored ways to codify human morality into the systems of autonomous vehicles, and we’re looking into how to assist workers whose jobs might vanish as a result of automation. Our projects aren’t ivory-tower theoretical navel-gazing; we’re answering questions that will affect the lives of hard-working people in every state in the country, and around the world.

As a computer scientist, I fear a system that creates ever-concentrating centers of power. As black-box algorithms increasingly affect our everyday lives — weighing what we see on social media, calculating the length of prison sentences, determining who is able to get a loan, deciding who gets picked for job interviews — the evidence is mounting that these algorithms have unintended, discriminatory consequences. If we leave the coding of artificial intelligence and machine-learning tools in the hands of just one class of researchers, no matter how pure their intentions, we risk irreparably biasing the inputs that power these systems. Experts tell us that diverse teams build better systems; removing lower- and middle-class grad students from the STEM pipeline will make the industry’s diversity crisis exponentially worse.

And there’s another, more practical issue. Our undergraduate universities are already in the grip of a serious teacher shortage, and graduate students help to fill the ever-widening gap. Shrinking the pool of qualified instructors even further will have serious side effects. Teaching quality will suffer. Students will have a harder time finding the classes they need to graduate on time. The overall competitiveness of American universities would plummet.

This tax bill gambles with the future of our educational institutions, the lives of our most promising students and the strength of our national economy. If we allow our legislators to dismantle the very foundations of higher education, we risk toppling the entire system of higher education, a path that has given so many of us our best chance at the American Dream. We must not let Congress fund a $1.5 trillion corporate tax cut by mortgaging our country’s future.

Blakeley Hoffman is a research assistant at the MIT Media Lab and a master’s degree candidate in Media Arts and Sciences (2019). Reach her @blakeleyhoffman.

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