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Davis

Davis, California

Sunday, April 21, 2024

Column: Your taxes, my tuition

I can barely contain my excitement. April 14 is nearly here! Ah, Tax Day: Almost as fun as the first day of school, or going to the dentist! Mind you, as a grad student, I actually enjoy taking classes and learning, so my love of taxation is genuine. Also, I have nice teeth.

As annoying as it is to have to pay the government a share of your income, take comfort in knowing that your cash is going to a worthy cause: Me. Since I’m an NSF (National Science Foundation) fellow, my stipend comes directly from the government and, indirectly, from you. Your taxes pay for me to live. My rent, my instant noodles, my gin, my daily caviar baths, my extensive porn and Fabergé egg collections, my Tuesday-night hooker-thons … it all comes from you! Hooray, taxes!

Of course, I do have to work for this money. If I’m not on campus doing the wetwork, then I’m at home reading articles, writing papers, analyzing data and, yes, applying for more research funding. Science is expensive! Your taxes help pay for my reagents, my DNA sequencing, my ground-up moon rocks and even my microscope slides. Thanks!

OK, they also pay for my trips to exotic locations. Can I help it if my study organism is in Indonesia, or if the conference I’m speaking at is in Hawaii? Last summer I spent 10 weeks in Japan doing research and gaining “cultural experiences,” which is legalese for federally funded tourism. My airfare and stipend were paid for by the NSF, and my living expenses were covered by the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science. A summer of sushi, karaoke, and Pokémon merchandise co-sponsored by both American and Japanese taxpayers! Arigato!

Oh, and I also discovered a novel cellulolytic system with possible use in the biofuel industry while I was there. You’re welcome!

If you’re not fully convinced that grad school is a good choice yet, did I mention that tuition is covered? I am literally being paid to go to college again. The UC Regents can do whatever they want and my personal finances won’t take a hit, because my tuition is being paid for by the government (and, by extension, you)!

Before you get your pitchforks, know that the reason that some Ph.D. programs are paid is that the average salary of the graduates isn’t enough to justify med-school levels of tuition or debt. Entering an unpaid Ph.D. program is a terrible idea. The sciences also are much more likely to fund students; getting a humanities degree of any kind is a terrible idea. The stipends aren’t much, either. There’s a reason grad students are stereotyped as subsisting on ramen noodles and criticism. Being a graduate student means getting paid expenses to do what you love, like travel, as opposed to taking a higher-paying job you dislike but affording such perks yourself. I chose the former with no regrets: Food tastes better when it’s free.

As for tuition, I sympathize with the undergrads here, I really do. I see how your tuition keeps going up, exponentially, year after year. You keep paying more but getting less, as sports teams and other perks get cut. I even know students who’ve had to drop out because they can’t pay tuition, and that’s really terrible.

If anything, having earned my B.A. elsewhere gives me a greater perspective on why tuition here is ridiculous. Consider this: While the cost of private universities may be more than for public colleges, the financial aid offered is also greater. We are rapidly nearing a point where, for a middle-class family, an Ivy League degree costs less than a degree at a UC. The former lets you take as many classes as you want for the same tuition, with no lab fees. The latter makes you buy your own scantrons, which I find utterly mind-blowing. I’ve always depended on the kindness of generous campuses and governments, so coming here was a culture shock of sorts. Believe me, tuition-paying citizens of underfunded campuses, I feel your pain — even if my bank account doesn’t.

MATAN SHELOMI flavors his ramen with schadenfreude and the tears of freshmen, and can be reached at mshelomi@ucdavis.edu.

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