How Did Graduate Students Get a Win From the Tax Bill?

graduate students tax billA long list of Americans will lose in the GOP tax law—homeowners, retirees, people with chronic illnesses, people who don’t run hedge funds or own private jets…and many fought hard to protect themselves from a plan that puts the richest Americans first.

Most were ignored by Congress. But one often overlooked group, with the support of NEA and its affiliates, managed to protect itself: the graduate assistants.

“It was a win, so hopefully it gives people some hope that they have a voice in political issues, and that their voice actually matters,” said Brianne Pragg, chief organizer of the NEA-affiliated Coalition of Graduate Employees (CGE) at Penn State University. “And also, hopefully, we can build on this in the future.”

The original tax bill, passed by the U.S. House in December, would have taxed graduate assistants (GAs), also known as grad students or grad employees, on the value of the tuition grants or remissions that they commonly receive. At Penn State, where GAs account for nearly half of the instructional workforce and do the lion’s share of research in its labs, the average tax bill would have increased from $1,092 to $3,182.

Within days of the bill’s introduction, NEA members, leaders, lobbyists, and allies mobilized. Calling it “devastating for higher education,” the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students (NAGPS) helped launch an all-out attack on its progress, fueled by social media, involving tens of thousands of phone calls to Capitol Hill and countless visits to local Congressional offices.

Many listened. Days before the final House vote, U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, an Illinois Republican whose district includes the University of Illinois, delivered a letter to GOP leaders, co-signed by 25 other Republicans, including Glen Thompson from Penn State’s district, asking for the GAs to be exempted. When the final GOP bill was approved by Republicans in late December, the GAs were no longer a target.

What happened? And what can educators and their advocates learn from their success for the next legislative battle?

A Master Class in Political Power

In Tampa Bay, at the University of South Florida (USF), Erin Sauer and Marcy Cockrell first heard about the bill from another grad student, who had heard about it from a department colleague. The United Faculty of Florida-USF-Graduate Assistants United co-presidents immediately reached out to their statewide union, the United Faculty of Florida, and to their members.

Sauer and Cockrell spoke to reporters. They used social media—Facebook and Twitter—to spread awareness of the tax bill, and emailed more than 2,000 GAs at USF, urging them to contact Congressional offices. They provided simple scripts for phone calls and emails. And they met personally with staff in two U.S. House district offices, both Democrat and Republican, to explain what GAs do and how the bill would affect their work at USF and the economics of the Tampa Bay region.

Meanwhile, GAs across the country—alerted by their national unions or by the NAGPS—did the same. Facebook and Twitter blew up with grad students posts and photos, and the calls kept coming.

“It seemed very organic, but in reality it was very strategic,” says Samantha Hernandez, director of legislative affairs at NAGPS, which coordinated weekly calls among GA leaders and several “call-in” days to Congress, and made sure sure that GAs were consistent and unified in their message.

Key lessons from their experience include:

  • Use social media to build awareness. The bill moved quickly. Facebook and Twitter matched its pace, spreading awareness of the bill and its implications. “I have mixed feelings on whether social media can mobilize people, but it is very successful in at least making people aware of an issue,” says Pragg.
  • Make the calls. The first NAGPS national call-in day to Congress delivered more than 5,000 recorded calls. Meanwhile, NAGPS also coordinated call-in days for specific states, and many local union chapters hosted their own calls. The calls are tallied and logged by Congressional offices, and serve as a gauge to lawmakers of voters’ interest.
  • Be consistent with your message, but tailor it to your audience. When Sauer and Cockrell met with an aide to Republican Rep. Vern Buchanan, they stressed how the bill would damage Tampa Bay economics. (Key point: USF’s research labs—and its 2,200 GAs—bring millions of dollars to Tampa Bay!) When they met with Democrat Rep. Charlie Crist’s staff, they also talked about how poor and middle-class Floridians would be shut out of USF’s programs and cut off from careers that require graduate degrees, ranging from school counseling to marine science.

This isn’t the first or last time that graduate assistants, or other college students, staff and faculty, will need to get political. The reauthorization of the federal Higher Education Act could be taken up by Congress in 2018, while statehouses continue to struggle to adequately fund their public colleges and universities. “There is no lack of legislative issues in Florida,” says Sauer.

“This was good practice.”