One of my co-workers used to remind me, “Never forget where you came from,” and I will never forget his words. Folks like state Rep. Rocky Adkins preach and defend the preservation of “hope and opportunity.”
Their words have plagued my mind with a question: What am I doing to preserve hope and opportunity for others seeking the opportunities I enjoyed?
Upon arriving at Morehead State University in 2001 after attending a technical college, I found myself surrounded by students like me, working students. I worked a variety of jobs, including being a wildland firefighter and garbage truck driver. After MSU, I earned a doctorate at Ohio State. There, I worked as a graduate assistant and as a fellow in infectious diseases — all while still returning to southern Ohio to pick up trash on the weekends, cut trees, plow roads, etc.
As an OSU student, I battled Hodgkin’s lymphoma and could not miss work or school to keep health insurance and pay bills. My family did not see me much, even when I sick, as I never had a single spring, summer or fall weekend in my 20s when I was not working.
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There are students like me now. In Appalachia, we are sons and daughters of custodians (like my mom) or maintenance mechanics (like my dad). We attend universities like Morehead State, Eastern Kentucky University, the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville.
We are the first in our families to earn degrees. We change families for generations. We live a tangible American dream. We prove a Harlan County coal miner’s work ethic instilled in a family can overcome great obstacles and enable a grandson to earn a doctorate.
However, hope and opportunity are under attack.
The tax bills blessed by House Republicans totally disregard working students. Wall Street lobbyists want $6 billion per year from student-aid benefits. Student loan users will see higher taxes. Most despicably, some of our poorest students, graduate assistants, will see immediate tax increases of 180 percent to 500 percent.
At UK, $331 million enter Lexington for research grants. The impact entails thousands of jobs and tremendous benefits to the local economy. The vision for competitive research grants typically starts with a team of professors, doctors, and researchers; however, the engines behind this research are often graduate assistants and post-doctoral researchers. Many of the assistants are working to learn and avoid an expensive graduate tuition they could never afford.
A graduate student in 2017 making $16,000 at UK, and $4,100 elsewhere, may pay about $1,000 in federal taxes. A tuition waiver has never been included as income. Under the Senate bill, this tuition benefit will be fully taxable.
For in-state grad students, the House tax bill will change reported income from $20,100 to $32,340, including the tuition waiver. The $1,000 in taxes owed will jump to $2,825 — a whopping 185-percent increase in one year.
For out-of- state students, it’s worse. The typical UK student making $20,100 per year will now owe taxes on $48,500 totaling $5,260 owed — representing a jaw-dropping immediate tax increase of 431 percent in one year’s time.
Meanwhile, Republicans maintain exemptions for companies to offshore jobs from our communities. Taxing our innovators decreases UK’s and our nation’s ability to develop new cures to antibiotic resistant infections and cancer. Numerous research jobs in our agriculture and bio-based engineering programs at UK will suffer.
I worry our public universities will become a country club for only the most affluent. As a professor, I want students with a work ethic and grit in their bellies. This bill will keep them away.
There’s an active war on public education. Public education was embraced as a Jeffersonian ideal that made America pretty great. Let’s not forget from where we came as a people and as a nation.
Jason W. Marion is an associate professor at Eastern Kentucky University.