The effing tax bill

In recent days, I’ve been told over and over that higher education is about to be decimated and I’m going to start paying taxes out of my ass because I’m on a scholarship.

Full disclosure: like many of my ivory tower compatriots, I’m totally gaming the system. I don’t really “need” to be in school. But if you can get a loan, whose interest will be taken off your future tax return, then student debt is a matter of creative accounting. Thanks to Obamacare has meant that I as a student get suuuuuper cheap healthcare (with virtually no money out of pocket). Also, my school gets to say they’re charging me for one of the most expensive educations in America, when in fact have a merit-based scholarship (not a “waiver,” mind you). Indeed, people my age are nuts not to stay in school. You get to do what you want, dick around a bit, have someone else pay for it AND get a tax credit for “continuing your education”. (Indeed,, TurboTax was not a nightmare in January, when I used it for the first time. It was like going to a slot machine at a casino.) As I said, higher education right now, despite the price tag, is totally rigged. You’d be crazy NOT to be in school.

Let’s think even more specifically. There are about 300 organ majors in the USA and maybe 200 harp majors every year. There are perhaps 80 full time Episcopal organist positions at any one time in the USA. There are maybe 30 salaried orchestral harp positions in the USA (maybe half of those are full-time). GETTING MORE DEGREES IS A BAD IDEA – except for the fact that I’m (a) profiting off it financially (to a degree), (b) having a good time on someone else’s dime, and (c) playing the system until inflation catches with my student loans. Eventually, the interest will be high enough that I’ll never really have to pay tax, and the rate of student debt in the United States is such, that there’s 40% of debt waivers sometime in the next 20 years. (Did I also mention that if I work half-time at a non-profit for ten years after I finish school, that I get loan forgiveness? If I keep a steady church job with interest-based repayment, I will only owe 1/7 of my total debt, and basically no tax during that time.) You wanna talk about unfair tax break beneficiaries? Find your nearest grad student.

But apparently that’s all about to change, right?

Question for my fellow grad students: how many of you actually read the GOP tax bill with regards to your fee waivers/scholarships before getting worried and started wringing your hands? I didn’t, and when I did I realized I was being a bit of an idiot. The tax plan keeps provisions for scholarships in place, allowing for teaching assistantships to be reclassified as scholarships. This would shift some financial burdens onto institutions (but last I checked, the ridiculous endowments was something that all of were complaining about, no?). Regardless of how institutions choose to restructure, the House proposal goes a long way toward making most “non-wage compensation” taxable.

The result a somewhat chilling evening out what double standards we might hold in terms of what types of compensation (or consumption) and their definition as “income.” It’s not unrealistic to think about. We’ve been dumping money into universities, and ditching trade schools or alternative forms of education. We’ve spent a long time evening the playing field by prizing liberal education over practical education (this is not surprising, considering most elite educated democrats – myself included – like the idea of philosopher kingdoms/intelligentsia vanguard/what have you).

In roaming some stats, it seems that spending on higher education has increased 238% in real terms since 1970. Enrollment? Roughly half that rate at 138%. And yet, tuition and fees at public and private universities have increased at twice the rate of inflation since 1980. (Need I also mention that student loan debt now exceeds 1.3 trillion annually?) It seems to me that the system in place has allowed colleges and universities to colleges to raise tuition profligately with little consequence to their enrollment counts. Maybe it’s a philosophical qualm of mine, but why is it that a commodity that supposedly propels students in the middle class (although, I encourage anyone to check the latest stats of the number of adjunct teachers on public assistance!) supposed to be tax free? Why is an expensive elite education more worthy than a cheaper one?

It seems we’re caught once again in the middle ground of deciding whether education should indeed be thought of as a commodity. Higher education is not going to grind to a halt, but the restructuring of the matter of how things are paid for is only going to continue the “robbing Peter to pay Paul” dance between schools, financial aid and increasing economic stagnation in academia.It seems for a long time, the institutions we uphold have been profiting off the same policies which its academics have spent years railing against. Schools will start having to use their endowments soon. Tenure may well become a thing of the past. But it will be a long, long time before that happens.

I think the GOP tax bill is a largely hateful document. Many of the provisions aren’t bananas – they’re just fucking mean. But I’ll be curious to see if any soul searching starts going on among us progressives about whether we are as committed to a education as democratic enterprise as we say we are. I’m able to get all these benefits from these institutions because I had a HUGE leg up to get there. I’m afraid I am a living example of money being dumped into a class of artsy elites who’ve had access to it for a long time, demanding my life as an artist be supported while our public schools can’t provide ANY arts education (much less ensure consistent graduation rates and levels of functional literacy). The system as it stands is not just upholding “elitism” as the GOP tells us, but arguably various systemic economic organs that favor students on the basis of gender, race, geography and household income.

I would be hopeful, normally. But my frank disgust about academia’s self serving attitude are about equal with my hatred for the GOP. Tax bill or no, things will likely stay the same for academics. We don’t need to kill the tax bill. We need to rethink education in America.

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