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Berkeley grad students create online calculator to estimate cost of House tax plan

By Carol Ness

Kathy Shield and Vetri Velan
Nuclear engineering grad student Kathy Shield and physics grad student Vetri Velan
Kathy Shield and Vetri Velan

Nuclear engineering grad student Kathy Shield and physics grad student Vetri Velan

Two UC Berkeley grad students, worried about the effects of the Republican tax plan that has passed the House, have built an online calculator that lets other grad students figure out what the plan might cost them.

The calculator was developed by Kathy Shield, a graduate student in nuclear engineering, and Vetri Velan, a graduate student in physics.

The House version of Republicans’ major tax code revision would remove a deduction graduate students can use to deduct the value of their tuition in exchange for working or doing research. Taxes for graduate students could climb by hundreds, and in some cases thousands of dollars.

grad student tax calculator

Screen shot of the online calculator; click image to try it out.

Velan used the calculator to estimate that the House version of the bill would raise his taxes by about 30 percent, or about $1,100.
“The calculator aims to give graduate students a sense of how their taxes will change under the new law,” Shield said. “It’s designed for students who file singly, and therefore have (relatively) simple taxes, although we’ve also used it to look at the situations of married students, those with dependents and those who own homes.
“In each case, our calculator indicates that their taxes will increase if the changes in the House version of the tax bill go through.”
Shield earns a stipend from a fellowship, for which she has research responsibilities with Rebecca Abergel, a scientist at Berkeley Lab who will join the nuclear engineering faculty at Berkeley in January.
Velan, co-builder of the calculator, also took part in Wednesday’s protest by grad students on the steps of Sproul Hall. It was part of a broader effort by graduate students across the country to draw attention to the impact the tax plan would have on them and on higher education.
Originally, he wrote an analysis with a a few examples of UC Berkeley and MIT students, but found that stipends and salaries vary widely for students. “I felt the calculator would raise awareness by showing students the effects on their own personal finances,” he adds.
The Senate version of the Republican tax plan, up for a vote soon, is silent on tuition waiver, but if it passes, it will go to conference with the House version. The worry is, Velan says, what will be in the version that emerges from conference.
“We want to make sure it does not contain the grad student tax,” he says.
In addition to helping build the calculator and taking part in the protest, Velan is contacting legislators and encouraging colleagues and friends to do the same. And they’ve been spreading the word about their calculator to the media. NPR ran a short piece in today’s Science Friday.
“Some grad students in ESPM organized a phone blitz for students to come and call their legislators! So the entire community has been coming together on this issue,” he says.
Listen to more on Science Friday