Baylor campus

Graduate students, including those at Baylor University, are relieved Republicans kept a tax exemption for their tuition waivers alive.

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte, file

Graduate students nationwide dodged a major blow to their pocketbooks when Republican lawmakers opted not to tax tuition waivers pivotal to their education.

Baylor University doctoral students get tuition waivers worth about $30,000. Most also receive a $20,000 stipend to teach a class or work with a professor. Under a proposed House GOP tax plan, students would have faced an $8,000 tax bill.

After receiving strong backlash to the plan, House and Senate Republicans kept the exemption on tuition waivers alive in their tax plan that propelled forward this week. President Donald Trump plans to sign the bill into law Jan. 3, 2018, according to Bloomberg Politics.

“There was a considerable concern on campus,” said Larry Lyon, vice provost and dean of the Baylor graduate school.

That concern was rooted in Baylor President Linda Livingstone’s goals to push Baylor into tier-one research status and boost the graduate school population. The plan would have potentially placed new research opportunities in harm’s way.

Jeff Strietzel, president of the Baylor Graduate Student Association, said he was thankful for the representatives who fought to protect tuition waivers.

“Making the attainment of a graduate degree more difficult would have hurt me and my family, all graduate students, our colleges and universities, and our country,” Strietzel said by email.

U.S. Rep. Bill Flores, R-Bryan, opposed the tax and said he worked with officials from Baylor, Texas A&M University and the University of Texas at Austin — all institutions in his district.

“This is particularly important to enable our research institutions to compete globally for the best and brightest students as they educate and pursue important research initiatives for the 21st century,” Flores said in a statement. “Robust graduate education programs are economic engines for America and it is crucial that policymakers recognize and promote these important components of our higher education infrastructure.”

Texas A&M System Chancellor John Sharp said Flores’ work is “the primary reason” graduate students were saved from the tax, according to The Eagle, a Bryan-College Station newspaper.

“The entire Texas A&M System owes him a huge debt of gratitude,” Sharp said of Flores, who signed a letter to top Republicans opposing the repeal of the tax break.

Lyon had previously called the original House tax plan “probably the most serious threat to doctoral education we have ever experienced.”

He said universities are too often viewed with disdain among those unfamiliar with them, and the message of their goals should be clearer in order to avoid aggressive policy being made against them.

“Higher education generally needs to understand that a number of our representatives and a proportion of our population see higher education as a problem rather than a solution,” he said. “We probably need to do a better job of not presenting ourselves as always critical and always attacking and showing more fully that we respect all points of view, and that we reflect all points of view. There are all kinds of faculty and all kinds of graduate and undergraduate students.”

Strietzel hoped the discussions would positively influence higher education policy rules in the future.

“In the end, calling into question the incentives for graduate education may clarify and galvanize support at the legislative level,” he said. “Our country needs a highly educated workforce, now more than ever.”

Phillip has covered higher education for the Tribune-Herald since November 2015.

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