Robert Dalka: Graduate students need our support

Monday, January 8, 2018 - 4:36pm

When I first heard about the proposed tax increase on graduate students, I thought, “why would anyone make it harder for motivated, capable people to pursue higher education?” I work in a lab with many graduate students, and I am considering graduate school myself. This tax would have hurt people I know, and although it would not affect me immediately, it could certainly impact my future. I sent emails to both Michigan senators as well as my district’s congresswoman urging them to fight against the provision increasing graduate students taxes. This was a national effort supported by many universities and groups of graduate students across the country.

Even with support for these students, over the next week, I was still reading article after article about how it could be left in the final bill. The tax would have been harmful to not only individual students but the entire United States graduate school system. I wanted to show other students how harmful this could be, so I decided to speak with someone who would actually be affected.

Through talking with people I knew within the physics department here at the University of Michigan, I was able to set up an interview on Dec. 4 with Shruti Paranjape, a Rackham student studying theoretical physics. She received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research in Pune, India.

I first wanted to get some background on Paranjape and why she chose to come to the University. After all, there are many institutions all over the world that have great graduate programs. Paranjape mentioned that she knew she wanted to come to the U.S for graduate school because American programs offer the most comprehensive instruction. She ultimately decided on the University of Michigan because she had heard about the great reputation of the school.

"There were very few places in India that measure up to the quality of the universities I was considering in the United States,” Paranjape said on why she decided to come to the U.S. to pursue her Ph.D. instead of India.

The U.S. is known for having great graduate schools. According to U.S. News and World Report, eight of the top 10 global universities for graduate studies are American universities. The rankings are based on factors such as research publications, academic conferences and reputation surveys. If the U.S. wants to keep its universities at the top, it must continue to attract the best students. It is hard to do that when students think that they will not have the support or money needed to live their lives.

As I continued with the interview, I started to become aware of some of the things that graduate students have to sacrifice. While Paranjape can live comfortably on what graduate students are currently supplied with, she still has to make sacrifices. This past winter break was the first time that she had been home to visit her family. International flights are expensive, and graduate students save up for months to be able to afford to visit their home communities. This is a common situation for international students.

“You barely get to see your friends, your family, that entire community you built up for years,” Paranjape said.

We eventually came to the topic of the proposed tax. I asked Paranjape if she thought that it would force her to sacrifice more things or force her out of school, and she said she would have to cut down on some hobbies, but she would find a way to remain at the University. She was more worried about how it would have potentially affected others who might not be in the same position as her and that the tax would make United States graduate school no longer a viable option for many students.

These changes the tax bill would have brought would have been devastating for international students especially. It would have left them with few options and no money for the start-up costs of moving to a new country let alone dealing with general living expenses.

At Rackham Graduate school, just over 35 percent of the graduate students enrolled are international students. This is a large group of people, and if this kind of tax provision passed, we would most likely see that number drop.

At the end of our conversation, I proposed the idea of giving a greater amount of support to graduate students rather than taxing them more. I asked Paranjape if this hypothetical change could bring more diversity to universities. She thought it would.

“Just from a pragmatic standpoint, say all you want is for your department to do amazing research, the more diversity in the kind of people that are thinking will lead to more diversity in the kind of ideas they are thinking about. It would mean better research and make for a better department. The more diversity, the better, period,” Paranjape said.

Diversity is important in bringing new perspectives to any field and helps make any project more innovative and well-rounded. If graduate education had become more expensive through this tax increase, there is a good chance that many universities and their departments would have lost out on applicants who would no longer see graduate school as affordable. As Paranjape said, this would have narrowed the type of people that would be able to afford graduate school, leading to a shrinking of ideas.

Graduate students have a lot on their plate, including research, classes and just trying to live a comfortable life. They are always busy and this tax bill would have been another burden for them to bear. Graduate students are the people who are pushing our understandings and developing new ideas. It is already a stressful time and many, like Paranjape, are away from family and friends. I do not believe that they should have to worry about not having enough money to support themselves.

Although the proposed tax on graduate students was not included in the final bill that was passed, there is a good chance that it will be brought up again. As students, as educators, as U.S. citizens, we must continually support graduate students. Not just to fend off attacks that would make it harder for them, but to give more aid whenever possible.

Robert Dalka can be reached at rpdalka@umich.edu.

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