The U.S. House of Representatives passed an overhaul of the tax code that would add taxes to student tuition waivers.
The walkout, initiated by six USC students, invited scholars across the country to challenge the bill, which could have far-reaching consequences on higher education and how graduate students finance their education.
"We contacted March for Science, we contacted graduate student organizations across the country, and together, in the span of two weeks, it started from really six students to 6,000 followers on Facebook," said USC student Nina Jhaveri, the lead national walkout organizer.
Many protesting shared their concerns about the bill.
"If this bill passes I might not be able to be here any longer. I'm a single, independent woman who has lived on her own in Los Angeles for about 10 years now, and I support me," said Caitlin Dobson, a first-year USC Annenberg Ph.D. student, who focuses on intersectional feminism, gender studies and globalization in relation to power based sexual violence, specifically gang rape.
The Republican-sponsored bill includes a $1.5 trillion tax package with a provision that would result in a tax hike on graduate students. The legislation would remove a deduction and effectively tax tuition waivers that many masters and doctoral students receive and rely on to pursue their degrees, work and do research.
Approximately 145,000 graduate students benefited from a tuition reduction in 2012, the latest data available, according to a national study conducted by the U.S. Department of Education. One in four doctoral students received institutional tuition and fee waivers during the same academic year, according to a tax policy brief from the Council of Graduate Schools.
More than 60 percent of the students who would be affected are in STEM – science, technology, engineering or mathematics, the American Council on Education, ACE, claims.
All income groups could feel the bill's impact as early as 2018. By 2027, everyone except those with higher incomes are expected to be affected, according to the Tax Policy Center.
According to the ACE, institutions of higher education are often one of the largest employers in the region. As employers, higher education is focused on preserving these sections which allow universities to offer employees and graduate students tax-free tuition remission and scholarships.
A repeal of Sections 117(d), or Qualified Tuition Reduction, would result in thousands of graduate students being subjected to either a major tax increase or a significant increase in tuition as universities would be forced to curtail tuition reductions, according to a report from the ACE. It would also affect some campus employees.
However, if students obtain more loans to pay their new taxes, they would encounter another surprise. Under the House bill, interest paid on student loans — a deduction that more than 12 million people used in 2015 — would no longer be tax deductible.
Today, the Senate will vote on a procedural motion to begin consideration of the bill on the Senate floor. If passed, the Senate can begin offering and debating amendments to the bill, making a floor vote likely for Friday.
While the Senate bill leaves out most of the higher-education provisions in the House bill, any legislation approved by each chamber will have to be reconciled into one plan.
If approved, the tax plan could take effect on Jan. 1, a fast-approaching deadline for the thousands of students and families who would face unanticipated tuition bills.