Don’t Tax Students’ Thirst for Knowledge

Don’t Tax Students’ Thirst for Knowledge

Categories: Opinion

Dear friends and colleagues,

Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York joins the many voices of higher education students and leaders across the nation who are vigorously protesting the proposed Senate tax bill.  If passed, its impact on higher education would be disastrous for generations of students to come and, as result, devastating for our institutions and our nation as a whole. Of primary concern is a proposed change to consider tuition waivers as taxable income, which would put significant financial strain on the thousands of students who depend on scholarships to fund their education. If passed, the bill would financially lock-out low-income students from graduate school in every field, exacerbating already present inequalities and functionally restrict Masters and Ph.D. programs to the wealthy.

As anyone in present-day graduate programs knows, the system already suffers from dramatic racial and economic disparities. Instead of addressing these issues, the present tax bill would worsen them. This should deeply concern any who care about the quality of academic work done in our institutions. Racial and economic inequality in academia is not a minor qualm; it is fundamentally unjust, and it destroys any pretense of academic excellence professed by higher education.

All scholarship is, to some degree, subjective. We enter into our work carrying our own biases, prejudices and blind spots. The history of every discipline reveals that when low-income voices and voices of color are excluded from the academic table, the quality of academic work suffers.  Bright and eager minds are silenced. Creative ideas are stifled. Unique and valued insights are cut off.  This mix is what insures that our knowledge-base is expanding and moving forward.  Without these voices, progress halts and knowledge becomes simply replicative of the views of a few.  When this happens, our nation suffers the horrible consequences of the deluded belief that the brightest minds come only from high-net worth families and are most likely white and privileged. If this tax bill passes, it will, in effect, be putting a sign on all our institutions doors saying, “poor and middle class students need not apply!”

The sad truth is that poor and middle class graduate students are already facing great financial strain. For decades, thousands of students with financial need have relied upon the Perkins Loan program to help finance their education. Unfortunately, Congress allowed the program to expire in October and there are no current plans to revive it. And now, this tax bill promises to finish them off, and break the back of their burden.

As an educational institution committed to the values emboldened on our crest, ‘Unity, Truth, and Love’, we are horrified by this so-called “tax reform.” It is an affront not only to these values: it destroys any notion that education is a right of all, that it seeks truth, and that it celebrates the pursuit of justice and love. Like most graduate programs, our students rely upon generous scholarship aid and untaxed tuition waivers; many simply cannot afford a Union education without these. To tax them for pursuing an education, and not possessing the familial wealth to finance that education independently, is simply wrong. It’s bad for the academy, and bad for our country.

It’s also an offense to our most deeply grounded religious beliefs as a seminary. Any Christian member of Congress who supports this bill should be ashamed. Where in sacred scripture is it written that “Only the rich should gain knowledge”? When did Jesus say, “give money to the rich at the direct expense of the poorest among us”? Instead, in Proverbs we read “The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom. Whatever else you get, get understanding.”

Who are we to stand between those eager to learn and the wisdom that God desires all to possess?

Rev. Dr. Serene Jones
President & Johnston Family Professor of Religion and Democracy