97

There has been a lot of press about how the new tax proposals currently being considered by Congress could hurt grad students because one of the plans would treat remitted tuition as taxable income.

I understand why this would be bad -- grad students who receive tuition remission would have to pay a lot more in tax.

But if this became the new law, couldn't universities simply change the way they handle tuition for funded graduate students? In most top Ph.D. programs no grad students pay tuition because it is always remitted. Instead of remitting it, couldn't the universities just not charge tuition at all, or pay it through a grant rather than through remission?

I'm asking because I'm wondering why grad students are so worried about the new tax plan. I understand why it would be bad if universities didn't change the way they handle tuition and students had to pay tax on all that extra "income." But as it is, tuition for many Ph.D. students is just a shell game because it is always remitted. If the goal is to allow students not to have to pay tuition, it would seem that there are other ways to do that that would get around changes in the tax code. And I can't think of any reasons why giving students remitted tuition is more beneficial to the university than just not charging them tuition in the first place.

Am I misunderstanding something about the way tuition remission works, or the new tax proposal?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – aeismail Nov 18 '17 at 2:38
58

This is a great question! I decided to write an answer to test my own understanding of the (rather convoluted) forces and interests at play. Assuming my answer makes sense, I hope it will help further the debate on this new proposed taxation rule.

Why can't universities work around the proposed reclassification of tuition remission as taxable income, by not charging tuition?

We don't know that they can't -- I guess we will find out if this proposed new rule becomes law. But with that said, I think working around the rule would require a lot more than just relabeling "tuition" as something else or some similar cosmetic change. The reason is that there is something pretty honest and logical about the current arrangement, which makes me think that changing it would lead to an illogical, dishonest situation, which would be problematic from multiple points of view and create all kinds of undesirable distortions.

My understanding of the current system is as follows. There are four parties involved in the exchange of funds and services when a student goes to graduate school:

  1. The university.

  2. The student.

  3. A funding entity (e.g. a public or private funding agency or an internal university grant).

  4. The government, acting on behalf of the interests of the rest of society (yeah yeah, I know how naive that sounds).

Each of those parties has its own interests and has something to gain from the transaction, and provides some benefits to the other parties in return:

  1. The university provides the student with an education and professional training, a costly good to provide (requiring physical infrastructure and lots of human capital). In return, it gets the tuition money (from the funding entity, or in some cases from the student him/herself) and the benefit of the research and other intellectual output of the student.

  2. The student gets an education and valuable professional training that is likely to translate to a happier, more fulfilled life with improved employment opportunities. In return, he/she does research and other intellectually taxing work that benefits the university and the rest of society.

  3. The funding entity provides funding to the university to offset (part or all of) its costs of educating the student. In return, it gets nothing, except the knowledge that it has fulfilled its mission of facilitating this process. (After all, funding agencies are set up precisely to be the entities in charge of giving away money to fund research.) This knowledge is used by it to justify its continued existence to the higher-level entities that are the source of its funds.

  4. The government and society get the benefit of the student's research and other intellectual output, and the multiple benefits associated with a more educated populace. In return it gives a tax exemption to the student from paying taxes on the tuition money, which is after all a material benefit provided to the student by the funding entity (except for those rare students paying their own tuitions). This tax exemption is in effect a subsidy or incentive for people attending graduate schools. Of course, as readers of this site are well aware, going to grad school in the US is quite an expensive proposition (in both real costs and opportunity costs) already, to an extent that even deters some people -- probably a lot of people -- from pursuing a graduate degree. Going to grad school still makes economic sense for lots of people, but certainly not for everyone, and requires a lot of sacrifice and patience even from people who do end up benefiting.

Now imagine what happens if the tax exemption in item 4 is eliminated through a unilateral decision by the government, which is only one of the four parties. This will result in a net flow of huge sums of money back to the government. The whole set of incentives of the other parties will be drastically impacted. It is very hard to predict the exact consequences, but likely there will be an equally huge drop in the number of people wanting to go to grad school. Universities will have to go begging for more money from the funding agencies to offset that and restore equilibrium to the system, but the funding agencies don't have more money to give, or they would be giving it already. So: a big, big problem for everybody.

Now, you are proposing that universities simply eliminate tuition to forestall this flow of money back to the government. But then how will they offset the high cost of the education and training they are giving to the students? Charge money from the funding agencies, you say, but just don't call it tuition. Well, the funding agencies have to agree to this. How would the money be charged? By what logical name would you call this transfer of funds (it is after all a subsidy by an external entity of the student's education, which is a benefit to the student and therefore taxable as income under the new rules, at least if it is called "tuition"); and how will you prevent the government's taxation agencies from coming and saying -- quite logically in my opinion -- that this is effectively a form of tuition subsidy whether you call it that or something else, and that the applicable tuition taxes are therefore due? These are all tricky questions. As I said, I don't know if the universities will be able to find a work-around, but it is far from obvious to me that another equally viable arrangement can be found under the proposed new taxation regime.

Finally, I should add that the current arrangement works well not just because each of the four parties gets something in return for what they give, but because each of them gets back much more than what they give. There is a very large net gain of utility to society from the existence of higher education (and graduate schools in particular). That is why it is a resource that is subsidized, in one form or another, in all advanced countries.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – aeismail Nov 21 '17 at 1:32
19

Instead of remitting it, couldn't the universities just not charge tuition at all, or pay it through a grant rather than through remission?

It may not be possible to not charge admission. Things like that are sometimes controlled by the state legislature, which is not always a friendly body. Beyond that, the difference between remission and "No tuition" is that someone is paying for the remission (or has been allocated a set number) whereas no tuition is just...no tuition. And often that someone is a grant.

But as it is, tuition for many Ph.D. students is just a shell game because it is always remitted.

Accounting shell games come about for reasons. For example, the university might have a fixed cost of credits for graduate students (keep in mind Masters, Law, Medicine, Vet, Dental, etc. students are also grad students), and you may need a certain number of credits to be considered a "full-time student".

Which in turn can impact things like your insurance, loan repayment schemes, visas, etc.

If the goal is to allow students not to have to pay tuition, it would seem that there are other ways to do that that would get around changes in the tax code.

They may not be possible, and they may not be possible by the time your taxes are due.

And I can't think of any reasons why giving students remitted tuition is more beneficial to the university than just not charging them tuition in the first place.

The CDC pays my institution many thousands of dollars for my graduate students' tuition. Zero tuition would mean they pay zero dollars. That's bad for a university with very little financial wiggle-room right now.

It can also impact university finances. As I mentioned, there are other types of graduate students, and right now one of the major sources of revenue for my college is agreements we have with several states to take their students (we're the nearest vet school). Setting that to zero would be a financial disaster.

  • 3
    This is probably the better answer - fairly arbitrary rules that are specific to the US and which are bureaucratically hard to change. Dan Romik's answer fails to explain why universities in other countries can do exactly what the question proposes. – MSalters Nov 20 '17 at 12:41
  • @MSalters which countries? And when you say those countries “can do exactly what the question proposes”, do you mean “work around the classification of tuition remission as taxable income by not charging tuition”? Or do you simply mean “not charge tuition”? That’s an important distinction: some countries might indeed not charge tuition, but I suspect their taxation and funding environments are so different from the US as to render their budget models irrelevant to OP’s question. And to clarify, my answer was written with a US context in mind, even if the description I gave is a high-level one. – Dan Romik Nov 22 '17 at 0:55
  • @DanRomik: Actually, in the Netherlands the universities do both: pay PhD's and not charge tuition. The pay is real and taxed. A tuition remission would be taxed, but simply not charging tuition is tax free. Not that strange: PhD candidates are getting to the point where they're doing independent research, although they're still inexperienced in that. University funding is a mix (direct government, funding agencies, industry) but misses the large alumni contributions common in the US. – MSalters Nov 22 '17 at 8:02
16

If business gives away free goods or services, the recipient will not in general be required to pay on tax on them. If, however, a business gives free or excessively-discounted goods or services to someone in exchange for work performed, the IRS will often regard that as a "barter" transaction, requiring the worker to pay income taxes taxes on the value of free goods or services, or the amount of discount, received. It isn't always necessary for the worker to pay taxes on the full retail value of the goods or services, but discounts must be justifiable as something other than a reward for the work performed. If, for example, a bakery allows workers to take home unsold bread, a 100% discount could be justified on the basis that the bread would be unsaleable the next day.

While there may be some opportunities to game the system slightly, the IRS is apt to be skeptical of a business that charges an employee far less than retail for goods and services that could otherwise have been sold, at a higher price, to someone else. Tax-law treatment of barter transactions is sufficiently hostile that it's generally best to avoid anything that the IRS might view as one.

  • This is all quite interesting, but can you explain more precisely the relevance to OP’s question? You seem to be saying something along the lines of “if universities try to get smart and change the word ‘tuition’ to something else, it may not help them in the eyes of the taxman” (similar to what I was saying in my answer) but I wonder if that’s what you meant or there’s more to it than that, and don’t really understand the barter angle. – Dan Romik Nov 17 '17 at 22:21
  • @DanRomik: My point was that there are tax rules for the specific purpose of limiting the usefulness of such things, by classifying them as "barter" transactions. – supercat Nov 18 '17 at 23:06
  • "If business gives away free goods, the recipient will not in general be required to pay on tax on them." Uhm, can you give an example? If you win sweepstakes you have to pay taxes on them as far as I know... I know food samples and "gifts" that you get along with purchases don't really seem to warrant paying taxes, but I'm hard pressed to come up with much else of nontrivial value. – Mehrdad Nov 19 '17 at 7:46
  • 1
    @supercat: If the "sample" had a nontrivial value (like say a $10,000 diamond) would that still hold true? – Mehrdad Nov 19 '17 at 21:37
  • 1
    @supercat Assuming they have no relationship with that company. But if, for example, that company is their employer, then they do have to regard it as income. This is why tips are taxable and why most benefits are taxable. – David Schwartz Nov 20 '17 at 11:15
15

To address specifically:

But as it is, tuition for many Ph.D. students is just a shell game because it is always remitted.

At my institution (which guarantees tuition support for all its graduate students), many PhD students are covered by internal university grants, and the "charging" of tuition in these cases seem to be little more than accounting.

However, many students are funded from external grants or fellowships, and in these cases the tuition charged to the student is funded by the grant and fellowship and represents real income for the university.

If my institution were to drop tuition to $0, it wouldn't be missing out on "income" from internal grants, it would just have to figure out a different accounting method (I don't know what this might look like, not an accountant), however, it would be missing out on real incoming money for those students on external grants and fellowships.

  • 5
    This is important, but it's also worth noting that external grants or fellowships do not necessarily pay the total claimed tuition price. For instance, at my university, tuition is technically 50k/year, but external funders only pay 10k/year, and the rest is remitted. – AJK Nov 19 '17 at 23:22
2

Currently some sciences receive tuition in proportion to graduate student salaries that covers some fraction of nominal tuition. If government were persuaded to give block grants to universities to run graduate programs in specified fields, no individual student would be tagged with the taxable income. Fields without subsidies (Law, Medicine [at least in many cases], too many humanities) could continue to charge tuition. The distortions, potential subterfuges, and potential for loophole exploitation are mind-boggling.

Nevertheless, there may be a simple, if expensive, work-around. Suppose a current graduate student gets $20k in salary and a $50k tuition waiver. Tax on $20k isn't much (and depends on number of dependents and other variables). Tax on $70k is a lot. So if the salary is boosted so that ($20k + increment - tax on the waiver and the salary increment to cover the extra tax) = ($20k - old tax), the student is whole. This transfers the problem from the students to the funding agencies. It still cuts the number of graduate students. It discourages foreign students from attending US universities because they too pay tax and, in many cases, tuition even when the US students get waivers. To cover the higher costs of teaching assistants, undergraduate tuition would increase. By making education more expensive, we can be sure we'll get less of it. There's a lot not to like in the House bill, but this particular taxing of the not-yet-wealthy or offspring-of-people-of-various-wealth-levels is about as destructive as one can imagine.

There's a part of me that says, "let's snap back ALL tax laws to where they were 1/1/99, when we were headed into a year of balanced budget and start over." That would raise a LOT of taxes. But it would sure help the deficit!

2

One thing that I have not seen mentioned is that not all grad students (or people who take graduate-level courses) are from the simple "being a grad student is really a research job" cookie-cutter. For instance, I did most of my grad work part-time, while employed in much more remunerative industry jobs. One fellow student was a multi-millionare, another a retired gent in his 60s. Dropping tuition to help the full-time RA-type students would mean we would all be getting our grad school for free.

  • 1
    The university is under no obligation to charge the same amount for every student. For example, one university charged non-matriculated students without a masters' degree 2/3 as much per credit as non-matriculated students with a masters'. They could simply charge part-time students. – Sorcha NicEalair Nov 21 '17 at 1:40
  • @Sorcha NicEalair: IANAL, but I think that might cause all sorts of legal trouble. If nothing else, the IRS could argue that not charging tuition for some was the legal equivalent of tuition waivers, so that the uncharged tuition would be subject to tax. – jamesqf Nov 22 '17 at 2:19
1

One (but not the only one) of the reasons is that graduate employees (= researchers and teachers) are not unionized and therefore cannot exert collective pressure on their universities to address this issue.

In fact, the problem is not only the tax itself, but also the fact that this hit by the federal government is borne by the graduate employees exclusively, rather than in part by the universities as employers. Suppose a university has a grad employee union which is infinitely strong, and that it has no other concerns or interests but to avoid the reduction in their effective income. In that case they could have forced the hand of the university to give them a raise amounting to the exact amount of the levied tax - and thus transferred the burden of paying the extra tax to the university.

Now, of course these assumptions don't hold, so a grad employee union might not be able to repulse much of the burden; or if it's stronger, it would probably reach some agreement with university management and split the bill, so to speak. But even beyond that - graduate employee salaries, or salaries-disguised-as-stipends (/fellowships/scholarships/whatever you call them) - are extremely low in the US. Any half-decent such union would have already increased these salaries to a level where the extra tax might have hurt, but would not have been nearly as painful.

Now - unionization is always difficult; and university managements are typically quite ruthless; and an inherently-precarious workforce with employment lifetimes of 3-6 years in most cases makes it even harder. But it is certainly critical to set up in order to face challenges such as this one, collectively.

  • 3
    Suppose the university increases the stipend to cover the cost of the tax (which they probably would have to to some extent if the government started taxing remitted tuition). You still have real money going out of the university's coffers into the federal government's. This hurts grad students, faculty, undergrads, and everybody else at the university. It doesn't solve the underlying problem, even if graduate students aren't quite as bad off as they would be otherwise. – Peter Shor Nov 19 '17 at 17:21
  • @PeterShor: You're absolutely right, I was talking about sharing the burden. However, when university management can easily depress the wages of some sector, it is less likely to resist budget cuts. So it's not quite a zero-sum game. – einpoklum Nov 19 '17 at 18:56
  • There are a number of graduate student unions... – Fomite Nov 22 '17 at 3:24
  • @Fomite: 1. They're still the exception rather than the rule 2. Even those are mostly not recognized, or have not even demanded recognition, to be representatives of the graduate researchers, as employees in research (I mean, as opposed to representing people as students only and/or as teachers). – einpoklum Dec 15 '17 at 14:31

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.