Schooled Reporting on education

Graduate students’ lobbying pays off, but do their degrees?

Education | Final version of the tax overhaul package kept student loan interest deduction and nixed tax on graduate tuition waivers
by Leigh Jones
Posted 12/20/17, 01:53 pm

The tax overhaul package passed this week by Congress did not contain two provisions targeting university students. The final version of the bill removed the proposed tax on graduate-school tuition waivers and restored the current deduction for student loan interest.

Higher education leaders lobbied hard against both measures, as well as other items in the bill. Earlier this month, 31 House Republicans asked party leaders to drop the tuition waiver tax, which would have taxed the free tuition universities provide for graduate students who teach courses or work in research labs.

Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, touted the changes as an example of GOP lawmakers listening to their constituents. Brady told the House Rules Committee that the final bill “preserves the student loan interest deduction, the exclusion for graduate student tuition assistance and waivers, and the provision allowing teachers to deduct out-of-pocket costs for school supplies.”

But conservative higher education analysts say graduate students in particular still get too many breaks, at the expense of average taxpayers who don’t plan to spend six or eight years in college.

“Big subsidies for people with advanced degrees should come under scrutiny when you have a populist streak,” Jason D. Delisle, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, told The New York Times this week. “By definition, everybody going to graduate school already has a college degree. The reality is, we’re worried about whether we’re helping undergraduates enough, and meanwhile, graduate students have amassed these big subsidies.”

Graduate students will now focus their lobbying attention on the Higher Education Act reauthorization bill, which passed through committee last week and likely will head to the House floor for a vote early next year. The bill ends student loan forgiveness programs for graduates who get public service jobs, and caps the amount of federal loans graduate students can take out. Delisle and other conservative analysts say both changes are a welcome step toward making would-be graduate students think about whether their investment is worth it.

But higher education leaders view the proposal as another sign of the declining support for colleges and universities.

Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, described an “assault” on higher education, while another activist told the Times that this year’s measures are excessive, even for a Republican administration.

“I think it’s tied into a dangerous narrative in our country about elitism,” Draeger said. “It undervalues our most important resource, which is our inventiveness, our ingenuity, our ability to solve big problems. A lot of that work happens at graduate-level education.”

But advocates don’t mention the number of American innovators who did not earn graduate degrees. Many leaders in technology fields didn’t even finish their undergraduate studies.

They also fail to answer the underlying question: Is the expense of getting a graduate degree really worth it?

According to the Times, tenure-track professors only make an average of $74,543. That’s about $10,000 more than the highest paid auto mechanics, who often don’t even have an associate degree. Something about the graduate school return on investment calculation just isn’t right.

Viewing history through LGBT-colored glasses

Last month, we reported on the California Board of Education’s vote to approve 10 LGBT-friendly history textbooks for use in elementary and middle schools. Now we’re getting more details about the behind-the-scenes battle between activists and publishers over how to present the material.

While publishers worked with the activists to identify homosexual and transgendered Americans to highlight in the texts, they clashed over how to handle historical figures who didn’t “out” themselves. State education regulators rejected one set of middle school books because publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt refused to use the LGBT label for some figures, including Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, President James Buchanan, and Jane Addams, the social worker who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt defended its decision by noting none of them identified themselves as gay or transgender.

In many cases, researchers don’t have proof of a historical figure’s sexuality. But in an effort to find historical role models that fit their narrative, LGBT activists have argued for a reinterpretation of facts based on today’s cultural climate. A Gold Rush era stagecoach driver named Charley Parkhurst offers a prime example. Historians agree Parkhurst, a woman, lived as a man, but they don’t know why. Did she believe she was born the wrong gender—today’s definition for gender dysphoria—or did she simply want to take advantage of the benefits living as a man afforded her, including independence and financial security.

Publisher McGraw-Hill refused to apply the LGBT label to some historical figures mentioned in its elementary-level textbook, saying to do so would “raise complex issues related to academic integrity, including factual verification, language and readability.” —L.J.

Associated Press/Photo by Gene J. Puskar Associated Press/Photo by Gene J. Puskar Pennsylvania State University campus in State College, Pa.

Penn State’s ‘shocking apathy’ toward underage drinking

A Pennsylvania grand jury blasted Pennsylvania State University in a report issued Friday for “a shocking apathy” to excessive underage drinking at fraternities and sororities on campus. The report said the grand jury uncovered evidence that university officials knew enough about alcohol abuse and hazing to bear some responsibility for not doing anything to curtail it.

“They found that they knew a great deal of it, and that they should know the rest. If they didn’t know, it was a deliberate, like, ‘don’t want to know,’” Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller said at a news conference after the report’s release.

Parks Miller is pursuing a case against members of Beta Theta Pi after the death earlier this year of 19-year-old pledge Timothy Piazza following an alcohol-filled hazing initiation ritual. The judge in the case dismissed some of the most serious charges, but Parks Miller refiled the case after getting additional video evidence.

In response to the grand jury’s report, Penn State administrators deny culpability for any wrongdoing and insist they did what they could to stop excessive drinking on campus. The grand jury report urges lawmakers to craft new laws to stop hazing and underage drinking. It also called on Penn State to stop relying on a fraternity council to regulate drinking at Greek organizations and take a tougher stance on students accused of hazing, including kicking them off campus.

Four universities—Florida State, Texas State, Ohio State, and Michigan—have suspended all Greek activity on campus after students died or suffered injuries following fraternity or sorority events. —L.J.

Celebrating a dream come true

No matter how you feel about the value of a college education, especially at an Ivy League institution, it’s impossible not to appreciate this young man’s excitement over his acceptance to Harvard University. Ayrton Little, a 16-year-old senior at TM Landry College Preparatory in Breaux Bridge, La., told The Boston Globe he’d always dreamed of going to Harvard. He posted the video of his celebration with a note every student should take to heart: “All the hard work was worth it.” —L.J.

Leigh Jones

Leigh lives in Houston with her husband and daughter. She is the news editor for The World and Everything in It and reports on education for WORLD Digital.

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  • Laura W
    Posted: Fri, 12/22/2017 08:54 pm

    I sure hope grad students aren't choosing that path to make the big bucks, but surely there are other ways the degree could be "worth it". And not everyone who earns an advanced degree stays in academia either, so the salary comparison is somewhat misleading. That said, I think people often do paint a rosier picture of the benefits of higher education than it deserves.