Published: Nov. 29, 2017
Graduate student Natalie Sharp​ speaks at a rally on campus Wednesday, Nov. 29

Graduate student Liz Marasco speaks at a rally on campus Wednesday, Nov. 29, addressing proposed congressional tax reforms and effects on graduate students.

Juan García Oyervides

Juan García Oyervides

As a proposed tax overhaul works its way through Congress, CU Boulder Today sat down with Juan García Oyervides, president of CU Boulder's United Government of Graduate Students, to discuss what he expects would be the effects on himself and fellow graduate students in general. 

A crowd largely composed of graduate students gathered on campus today in a rally addressing their collective concerns with the proposed changes. 

How would the proposed tax changes in Congress affect you?

The main concern for me as a graduate student is the proposed changes to make tuition waivers/remission taxable as income. Although I'm no longer taking any classes, I'd still be taxed for an additional $16,000 per year. It remains to be seen exactly how this tax would be implemented, but various calculations show that my income after tax would decrease by some $3,000 each year.

CU's federal relations team has been working diligently to engage Congress about the university's serious concerns with the tax bill, including its impacts on graduate students, charitable giving and critical bond financing mechanisms. Today, CU Board of Regents Chair Sue Sharkey and Regent Jack Kroll were on Capitol Hill to lobby members about the impacts the tax code rewrite will have on students and the University of Colorado.

“Chair Sharkey and Regent Kroll's visit is especially timely since the full Senate is expected to begin debating their tax bill tomorrow,” said Vice President for Government Relations Tanya Kelly-Bowry. “In addition, thanks to Chancellor DiStefano for his strategic work on the AAU's Board of Directors. Our team has also been working closely with CU's student leaders, including Lindsay Nichols, Graeme Pente and Jordan Maxwell, to ensure their grave concerns are at the forefront for lawmakers as they consider amending the bill.”

Our federal relations team has also been engaging with lawmakers from other states in joint efforts to improve the legislation. These efforts follow several weeks of outreach to Congress by the chancellors of the CU campuses and President Bruce Benson.

Of course, this may be an even greater hit for grad students who are still taking classes or whose tuition waivers are more significant. 

Some people may think of this as a frivolous complaint, but I believe it is actually the opposite. The question that should guide this kind of conversation is not whether tuition waivers and fellowships constitute income or not, but rather the value we, as a society, assign to knowledge and education in general, and scientific expertise in particular. 

What are you hearing from your fellow graduate students?

Most graduate students we've talked to are aware of the situation. They know what the Tax Cut and Jobs Act is and what it may do. However, not everybody has the time or energy to follow up on the entire process. We do our best to provide updates through our assembly members. 

There's also a lot of concern for what the CU administration is doing about this. It's not that people approve or disapprove, but we do get a lot of questions about this: "Have they said something? What are they doing?" I know there have been a number of statements since the bill was first introduced, and I think people appreciate these public expressions of support coming from our leadership.

However, for some graduate students this may be insufficient, and there are people who expect the administration to take a more proactive stance in the form of contingency plans or outlined strategies that people can understand and to which they can relate. I know this is especially difficult because graduate students have asked the same from us and, as much as we try, we often find ourselves reacting to issues as they come up.

Graduate students are worried because this is something that will definitely impact their personal finances. They want to know whether we, as a university, have any contingency plan in place; that we’re not expecting issues to solve themselves. They want to know that the most vulnerable members of our community have the support they need.

They’re worried that adding more financial stress for future graduate students to navigate will make graduate school an unattainable career path for people from low-income backgrounds and families. They want to make sure that people in their final years of graduate school will not have to abandon their degrees because of financial reasons stemming from this situation.

How do you think this could affect future students’ choices to enter graduate school?

I think it's evident this will become an added cost associated with attending graduate school. As it stands, even fellowships and some scholarships may become taxable income, which will probably reduce the number of applicants from lower-income families. 

I've read that some people perceive graduate students as a very privileged group. This may be true in some respects, particularly in the social benefits that come from advanced degrees. But these benefits do have a limit. There’s a limit to how much academic prestige can balance out financial instability.

If this reform becomes law, access to graduate school will indeed become more limited, even in public institutions like ours. This may also have a larger impact on international graduate students, as their out-of-state designation would yield higher taxes.  

Why are graduate students important to research institutions like CU Boulder?

Graduate students are at the forefront of research and academic advancement in research institutions. Although CU Boulder has a relatively low number of graduate students when compared to the undergraduate population and other peer institutions, graduate students still play a very significant role in developing, maintaining and improving research and teaching methods.

In the languages departments, for instance, it’s graduate students who have the most contact with first-year undergraduate students. They are the ones that, through their teaching, inspire students to fall in love with foreign languages.

In social sciences, graduate students also get to be teaching assistants for large lectures. They provide guidance and dedication to the smaller groups. The importance of these personalized interactions cannot be overstated. 

As the University of Colorado moves forward with its plan to create more online courses and degrees, I’m sure graduate students will continue to provide support to enhance online course experiences. 

Finally, we bring academic and professional challenges to our advisors. Some of us are harder to advise and mentor than others, but we all contribute to the research that faculty does by coming up with questions or approaches derived from our individual experiences.

We should nurture those experiences by providing graduate students with a rich and welcoming environment to make sure that our interactions with faculty, researchers and undergraduate students reach their full potential.

How are you making your voice heard?

I like to think we are a very outspoken group, and we have to be.

We have a good network of support at CU Boulder and communicate very often with the dean of the Graduate School, Ann Schmiesing. She's our point of contact on all administrative matters, and she does a great job making sure our voice is heard. 

We also collaborate very often with other campus governments such as Boulder Faculty Assembly, Staff Council and CU Student Government. We believe in the principles of shared governance and bringing our groups together in the common goal of making CU Boulder a better place for everyone. 

We are also working to get better communication with the Board of Regents. We try to attend every time they come to Boulder, but we'd like to have more regular communication with them.

We're always working to make sure our voices are heard throughout the CU Boulder community because we firmly believe that graduate students are great contributors to the university's purpose.